Broncos, 49ers move one win away from Super Bowl
Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos runs off of the field after their 24-17 win over the San Diego Chargers, during the AFC Divisional Playoff Game, at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver, Colorado, on January 12, 2014
Manning on Sunday threw two touchdown passes to lead Denver over visiting San Diego 24-17 while Colin Kaepernick ran for one touchdown and threw for another to lift the 49ers over host Carolina 23-10.
Denver will host New England and San Francisco will visit Seattle in next Sunday's playoff semi-finals with those winners to meet in Super Bowl 48 on February 2 at suburban New York.
Manning, who set new NFL pass yardage and touchdown toss records this season leading the top-scoring offensive unit in league history, will have a showdown against New England rival Tom Brady, whose records he broke, in a battle of star quarterbacks for the American Conference crown.
"It's the Broncos versus the Patriots," Manning said. "Tom and I have played against each other a lot but when you get to the conference championship it's about two good teams getting there."
The Patriots defeated Denver 34-31 in overtime in a regular-season matchup November 25 at New England. The Broncos led 24-0 at half-time before three-time Super Bowl winner Brady produced the greatest comeback of his NFL career.
Brady is 10-4 in games against Manning with a 2-1 playoffs edge. Each time the winner went on to win the Super Bowl, Manning taking the most recent such meeting in 2007 on the way to a title with Indianapolis.
But first the Broncos, who lost in this round last year to eventual Super Bowl winner Baltimore, had to get past a San Diego squad that upset them a month ago at home.
"We worked on (closing out games) all season," Manning said. "When you have a game that ended like last year, it becomes a focus point.
"It was good to see all that work pay off in that situation. Hopefully we can do it again next week."
Kaepernick, meanwhile, completed 15-of-28 passes for 196 yards and ran seven times for 15 yards as the 49ers shook off a slow start and avenged a 10-9 regular-season home loss to the Panthers last November.
"We had to get settled down," Kaepernick said. "We got into our rhythm and we started making plays."
San Francisco, which lost last year's Super Bowl to Baltimore, split two games with the Seahawks this season, losing 29-3 at Seattle in September but winning 19-17 at home last month.
"We're a different team than we were the first time we played them up there," Kaepernick said. "We have a lot of key playmakers back and we will be ready to go."
Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers' coach, became the first coach in the Super Bowl era to reach the conference finals in each of his first three years guiding a team.
New England defeated Indianapolis 43-22 and Seattle downed New Orleans 23-15 in playoff matchups Saturday.
Manning flipped a 2-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas and a 3-yard touchdown pass to Wes Welker and Matt Prater added a 45-yard field goal to put Denver ahead 17-0 entering the fourth quarter.
San Diego's Philip Rivers sandwiched two 16-yard touchdown passes to rookie Keenan Allen around a 3-yard touchdown run for Denver's Knowshon Moreno in the fourth quarter.
The Chargers pulled within the final margin on Nick Novak's 30-yard field goal with 3:53 to play, but Manning connected with Julius Thomas on two third-down conversion passes that allowed the Broncos to run out the clock on San Diego's upset bid.
"We were able to convert third downs," Manning said about the difference from an earlier home loss to San Diego. "We made a real point to be productive on first and second down."
At Charlotte, San Francisco took a 6-0 lead on Phil Dawson field goals of 33 and 49 yards in the first quarter.
Carolina answered on Cam Newton's 31-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith and the Panthers stretched their lead to 10-6 on Graham Gano's 24-yard field goal.
The 49ers responded with a 12-play, 80-yard march capped by Kaepernick's 1-yard touchdown toss to Vernon Davis, which counted only after a video review overuled him being called out of bounds.
That gave the 49ers a 13-10 half-time lead and they stretched it to 20-10 just 6:07 into the third quarter on a 4-yard Kaepernick touchdown run.
Dawson added a 34-yard field goal with 7:41 remaining for the final victory margin.