- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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DENVER -- This time the knee wasn't a question mark.
No, this time the knee was an exclamation point. It was the final piece of punctuation on a chapter the Broncos had waited a year to close.
When quarterback Peyton Manning knelt in victory formation on the last play of a 24-17 win over the San Diego Chargers in Sports Authority Field at Mile High Sunday, you could say a hard-nosed January wind off the Continental Divide was simply an entire region's sigh of relief.
"Absolutely, we have been in a position like this before, except this time we found a way to get it done," Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. " ... Until the clock says zero, you don't have the win. This time we had the win, we kept our foot on the pedal."
It had been 365 days, 12 calendar pages and endless hours of what-if hand-wringing by many of the same people in many of the same seats, since Manning took a knee in a playoff game. A year since he took a knee with 31 seconds to play, two timeouts in hand, in a game the Baltimore Ravens had just tied at 31 on a remember-when bomb from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones.
You know the rest of the story. Manning threw a late interception, the Ravens kicked a field goal to win in double overtime on the way to an eventual Super Bowl title and the kneel down is replayed in family rooms across the Front Range.
On Sunday, with the Broncos holding a 24-17 lead, a growing nervousness swept over a home crowd that had watched a 17-0 lead evaporate in the fourth quarter. With 3 minutes, 6 seconds to play, the Broncos were indeed a little wobbly, facing a third-and-17 from their own 20-yard line and the weight of history resting on their shoulders, looking to drag them down.
"Aw man, third-and-17, tough position to be in as a team," Broncos tight end Julius Thomas said.
"We've been working on situations all year long ... that game last year forced us to address different kinds of situations all season long, training camp, during the season and Coach [John] Fox has called for situations," Manning said. " ... All that hard work paid off for us in that situation."
As he had for the entire afternoon, offensive coordinator Adam Gase had the Broncos in a three-wide receiver look with Thomas in the right slot. When the Chargers didn't walk a linebacker out on Thomas, Manning got the coverage he expected. At the snap Thomas moved through the flat, toward the sideline, and the Chargers did not get a defender there to help.
"It was a lack of communication on our part," Chargers coach Mike McCoy said.
Manning stepped up to avoid a Chargers rush that was closing in and dropped a perfect throw into Thomas' hands as he approached the right sideline. Thomas got both feet down, right in front of his teammates, and effectively ended a Chargers rally -- closing the book on last season's heartbreak.
"[Third-and-17] certainly a no-brainer there what you had to do," Manning said. "... Great play call by Adam, really was a big-time play call, got them in the right look and a good catch by Julius."
"Had a good look, Peyton threw a great pass, was able to get both feet in," Thomas said. "Just really gave us the opportunity to keep the offense on the field."
Three plays later Manning hit Thomas again, this time to convert a third-and-6 for good measure. In the end the Broncos didn't leave it to chance, didn't put their fate in somebody else's hot hand. This time they got the first down they needed, and then some. This time they kept the ball for the game's final 3:51.
They didn't give it back to a quarterback who had that look in his eye -- Philip Rivers threw for 173 yards in the fourth quarter after throwing for 44 yards in the first three quarters combined. They didn't allow a chance for a miracle, didn't leave room for another can-you-believe-that, heart crusher they would have to live with for at least another year.
No, this time the Broncos handled their business and closed the deal.
"Philip got hot there in the second half and I did not want to give him the ball back there at the end," Manning said. "There was some real want-to on offense to stay on the field that last series ... We'll enjoy this one, you're supposed to enjoy these wins. They're hard to come by."
In the end, there were plenty of football reasons the Broncos won and moved on to the AFC Championship Game, plenty of plays that meant at least something along the way.
They had dragged a year's worth of baggage from a drama-filled season, a year's worth of second-guesses and why-didn't-you-just questions into the stadium Sunday. For some, their record-setting 606-point season had simply been labeled as an extended preseason because of last January's loss.
But the Broncos -- with that third-and-17, with that closing 3:51 of work -- can leave all that behind now. People should see a difference in the days ahead because of it, whether the Broncos will admit it or not.
"I really think the team needs to be commended for even getting to this point," Manning said. "A lot of teams had disappointing losses last year, Atlanta, Washington, everybody says in that locker room: 'Hey let's get back next year.' It just doesn't happen, it's hard to get back ... I told the team [Saturday] night, you need to be commended for getting back to this point. I mean we've been through more this year, it's hard to explain all the stuff we've been through ... We're proud and happy to be to this point and certainly want to keep it going."
1dEric D. Williams
7dEric D. Williams