- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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What it means: A 365-day wait, with all of the questions and the collective angst from their faithful in tow, is over. The Broncos faced a pile of pressure from within and from the outside Sunday to repair what went wrong in the double-overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens last Jan. 12. Sunday's win gave the Broncos their first postseason victory since a wild-card win over the Pittsburgh Steelers following the 2011 season. It gave the team their first AFC Championship Game appearance since the 2005 season and a rather hearty serving of relief after a third-and-17 conversion just before the two-minute warning. They will play better next week with the pressure off.
Stock watch: There was a point this season when rookie running back Montee Ball had lost three fumbles -- he lost his third of the season Nov. 24 against the Patriots -- and the Broncos were considering dialing back his workload. But Ball promised then he could fix the problem and has kept his word. He hasn’t fumbled since and the Broncos gave him premium carries Sunday. He showed the balance and the vision in traffic the Broncos saw when they drafted him. Ball had 52 yards on 10 carries by the time the third quarter drew to a close. Folks will see more of Ball moving forward as the Broncos would like to split the carries between him and Knowshon Moreno as evenly as possible.
Eye on Harris Jr.: Before Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. left Sunday’s game with knee and ankle injuries, the Broncos defense was easily having its best outing of the season. The Broncos had frustrated Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and controlled the run game. However, after Harris left early in the second half, things turned slightly, including a touchdown throw from Rivers to Keenan Allen with 12:59 left in the game with Quentin Jammer in coverage. Jammer was in for Harris Jr. The injury will be significant if Harris Jr. is unable to play next week. He has been their most consistent defensive back and he plays in every situation.
Wind-swept trouble: Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase always said wind has a far bigger impact on the Broncos' offense than cold, rain or anything else. And on a blustery day -- with wind gusts in the 40-mile-an-hour range -- it had an impact at times on the Broncos' high-flying ways. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning was efficient and the Denver offense moved the ball at will on multiple drives. But facing into the wind the Broncos also struggled at times and looked out of sorts. Toss in a few drops, an ill-timed penalty or two and a missed field goal, and the road got decidedly more bumpy for the Broncos in the second half. If they are going to be the last team standing, the Broncos will have to have a definitive answer against a healthy, physical opponent, when they can’t work their passing game at warp speed.
What’s next: Manning versus Brady yet again. The New England Patriots will come to Denver for Sunday’s AFC Championship Game. To make it to a Super Bowl, Manning will have to solve coach Bill Belichick's defensive riddle, and the Broncos will have to slow the Patriots' powerful run game.
3hEric D. Williams