For three quarters, it appeared the Broncos had their ninth championship game appearance all locked up.
Then the fourth quarter happened.
The Chargers scored 17 points in the final quarter—14 off of two Keenan Allen touchdown receptions—to cut the deficit to just 24-17 with three minutes and 53 seconds remaining in the game.
With two timeouts, the Chargers forced the Broncos into a 3rd-and-17 play from deep in their own territory. Peyton Manning delivered.
Manning completed a 21-yard pass to Julius Thomas to convert the long third down, and the Broncos eventually ran out the clock to hold on to the victory.
With the Broncos winning for the first time in the postseason in the Manning era, what are the takeaways from Denver's 24-17 victory?
It may only shut up his critics for one more week, but Peyton Manning delivered when he needed to—with the Broncos on the verge of blowing a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter.
Manning faced a pivotal 3rd-and-17 from his own 20, and he converted with a 21-yard completion to Julius Thomas.
Three plays later, with the Chargers still alive with one timeout and a little over two minutes remaining, Manning completed a nine-yard pass to Thomas again for a first down on 3rd-and-6.
If Manning doesn't complete those passes, we might be talking about how the Broncos had one of the biggest collapses in NFL history.
Considering all of the talk coming into this game was about Manning's legacy and his past underwhelming performances in the playoffs, it was nice to see him shut up his detractors.
Well, at least until the conference championship game.
Coming into this game, it was well-known that the Chargers would try to win with a ball-control offense.
After all, this type of game plan led the Chargers to victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card Round, while it also helped San Diego to defeat the Broncos, 27-20, in Week 15 of the regular season.
In an ironic statement, the Broncos beat the Chargers—with a ball-control offense.
The reason the Broncos were able to dominate the Chargers so easily through three quarters was by dominating time of possession and keeping drives alive through third-down conversions and the right mixture of run and pass plays.
The Broncos held the football for 35 minutes and 27 seconds of game clock, while San Diego held the football for just 24 minutes and 33 seconds.
Denver ran 70 plays in comparison to San Diego's 49 plays.
Kudos to the Broncos for beating the Chargers at their own game.
Philip Rivers finished the game with 217 yards passing, two touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 115.8 quarterback rating.
Having said that, 173 of those passing yards came in the fourth quarter—meaning Rivers passed for just 44 yards through three quarters.
Denver's defense did come out with the perfect game plan. Cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Chris Harris Jr. and Champ Bailey proved to be better than expected. Denver's pass rush was relentless, racking up four sacks on Rivers without blitzing.
But all that still doesn't excuse the fact that Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt refused to open up the playbook.
Until the fourth quarter, the Chargers didn't attempt to throw the football down the field.
Whether it was the Chargers being too ingrained in the ball-control offensive philosophy or just a lack of adapting and adjusting on the fly, the Chargers' lack of willingness to get risque with their offensive play-calling was one of their downfalls in the loss.
Other than the near-collapse in the fourth quarter, Denver's defense couldn't have played any better.
Denver's defense allowed just one passing yard (net) through the first half. Through three quarters, it held San Diego without any points. It wasn't until eight minutes remained in the third quarter that a Chargers wide receiver finally caught a pass.
For all of the criticism this unit has received for being the Achilles' heel of the team, the defense came out to play on Sunday, and it complemented the offense with just enough to help lead the team to victory.
Wes Welker returned to game action for the first time in five weeks and had six receptions for 38 yards and a touchdown.
Considering the Broncos won, that Welker scored a touchdown, and the fact that it was his first game in over a month, that stat line doesn't look too bad.
But then you watch the actual game—Welker had a couple of drops, including one that should have been a touchdown in the second quarter—and you see that Welker looked tentative and a bit afraid to take a hit.
Considering the slot receiver was out for over a month due to a concussion, it's no surprise Welker looked a bit hesitant. The reason it's an important issue to bring up is that the Broncos will need the Welker of old if they hope to be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February.
The Broncos executed the ball-control offense so well that they not only ate up 35 minutes of game clock, but they never punted on all eight of their offensive drives.
The offense wasn't perfect—the unit did commit two turnovers, including one in the end zone—but Broncos punter Britton Colquitt did not punt a single time.
The only game Colquitt went without punting a single time was in Denver's victory over the Cowboys in Week 5, when the Broncos scored 51 points.
Denver's victory over San Diego was the perfect illustration of a game plan executed well.
As deadly of a weapon as Peyton Manning is, and as good as the Broncos' offense has been all season long, the key to winning in the postseason won't be Manning's arm—it will be the execution of the ball-control offense.
With the Super Bowl likely to have a kickoff temperature hovering around 40 degrees, if the Broncos hope to win the Lombardi Trophy in 2014, the offense will have to resemble the one that everybody saw in the 24-17 victory over the Chargers.
Although the 2013 Broncos are a record-breaking offensive unit that averaged 38 points per game, they won't win games in January and February with a shootout-type offense. The Broncos simply won't be able to score that many points versus teams such as the Patriots, 49ers and Seahawks in cold temperatures.
When Manning won his only Super Bowl in 2007, he did so by throwing three touchdowns and seven interceptions in four games. Manning and the Indianapolis Colts relied upon a strong running game and a defense that excelled in the postseason to win the Indianapolis Colts' only championship during the Manning era.
The only way the Broncos reach their goal is if they abide by this game plan: less reliance on Manning, and more aid from his supporting cast.
The Broncos did exactly that versus the Chargers, and that's why Denver is advancing in the postseason.
Yes, Tom Brady won't actually be going one-on-one with Peyton Manning. But that will be the main storyline all week leading into this game.
As Manning stated, via Mike Klis of the Denver Post:
Tom Brady has been an outstanding quarterback for such a long time but the game next week is the Broncos versus the Patriots. I know there's going to be some individual matchups that get headlines but it will be a battle between good teams. Teams that have been through a lot.
It will be the fourth time in their illustrious careers that both quarterbacks will play each other in the postseason. It will be the first time since 2006, when Manning's Colts defeated Brady's Patriots 38-34 in the conference championship, that both quarterbacks will square off in the postseason.
Of course, another storyline will be the fact that Brady's Patriots knocked off Manning's Broncos in Week 11, 34-31 in overtime, after overcoming a 24-point deficit.
Regardless, be prepared for another week of "Brady vs. Manning" talk, because it might be the last time the future Hall of Fame quarterbacks square off in the postseason.