Peyton Manning welcomed Wes Welker back into the lineup with a touchdown toss, as the Denver Broncos advanced to the American Football Conference championship game with a 24-17 win over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday.
In the National Football Conference, Colin Kaepernick threw one touchdown pass and ran for another score, as the San Francisco 49ers defeated the Carolina Panthers 23-10 to advance to the championship game for the third straight season.
The Broncos (14-3) controlled the game for three quarters, before Philip Rivers capitalized on an injury to cornerback Chris Harris Jr to stage a comeback reminiscent of Baltimore’s shocking win at Denver exactly a year earlier.
However, this time, Manning rescued the Broncos from the brink of another crushing collapse and sent them into the title game for the first time in eight seasons.
They are to host the New England Patriots (13-4) on Sunday in a matchup that will once again pit Tom Brady against Manning.
In the most recent clash of the two quarterbacks with Hall of Fame credentials, Brady and the Patriots rallied past Manning and the visiting Broncos 34-31 in overtime on Nov. 24 last year.
“It’s the Broncos versus the Patriots and certainly Tom and I have played against each other a lot,” Manning said after beating San Diego. “But when you get to the AFC championship, it’s about two good teams that have been through a lot to get there.”
Manning, who is in the playoffs for a record 13 seasons as a quarterback, ended a personal three-game post-season skid by winning for the first time since leading Indianapolis over the Jets 30-17 in the AFC championship game on Jan. 24, 2010.
Manning completed 25 of 36 passes for 230 yards and two touchdowns, numbers that were not quite up to the standards he set during a record-breaking regular season when he established new benchmarks with 55 touchdown throws and 5,447 yards through the air.
Kaepernick completed 15 of 28 passes for 196 yards for the 49ers, avenging his worst statistical performance of the season two months ago against the Panthers.
Anquan Boldin had eight catches for 136 yards and Frank Gore ran for 84 yards on 17 carries for the 49ers (14-4), who will travel to Seattle next Sunday looking for a return trip to the Super Bowl. San Francisco split two games with the Seahawks this season.
The 49ers held Cam Newton in check, intercepting him twice and sacking him four times, while stopping the Panthers (12-5) twice on a one-yard line. It was a rough playoff debut for the former Heisman Trophy winner.
Linebacker Ahmad Brooks stopped Newton on a fourth-down sneak early in the second. Later, Brooks vaulted over the line past Newton and was called for offsides, but the 49ers still made it difficult for the Panthers.
Carolina’s vaunted pass rush, which led the league with 60 sacks, got to Kaepernick only once and the defense was flagged for three costly penalties, resulting in 13 points.
San Francisco benefited from a missed call in which officials failed to recognize that they had 12 men in the huddle before a go-ahead touchdown pass from Kaepernick to Vernon Davis at the end of the first half. Had the officials seen it, there would have been a five-yard penalty.
Carolina won 10-9 in November last year in San Francisco, but also had trouble scoring in that game.