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Peyton Manning leads Broncos back to AFC title game

DENVER -- In his first start since Nov. 15, Peyton Manning did enough to help the Denver Broncos back to the AFC Championship Game.

In a season when Broncos haven't done anything the easy way, they took a decidedly bumpy ride to a 23-16 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

Manning finished 21-for-37 for 222 yards, with no touchdowns and no interceptions. It may not have been his prettiest game, but he did enough to lead the Broncos to a matchup with the New England Patriots on Sunday in Denver. The winner will advance to the Super Bowl.

"When we needed it, we got that big drive and we got that touchdown to close it up," Manning said after the game.

The Steelers were missing the NFL’s leading wide receiver, Antonio Brown, because of a concussion, and their quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, was playing with a shoulder injury. Still, the Broncos' defense had more than its share of trouble. That is, until cornerback Bradley Roby knocked the ball out of Steelers running back Fitzgerald Toussaint's hands and DeMarcus Ware recovered the fumble with just less than 10 minutes left in the game.

The turnover led to the winning touchdown, a 1-yard run by C.J. Anderson with three minutes to play.

Just another day at the make-things-difficult office for a Broncos team that was 9-3 in games decided by seven points or fewer in the regular season, including three overtime wins. For most of the day, the Broncos made the faithful nervous as a team that had lost its playoff opener at home in two of the previous three postseasons looked to be on track to do it again, with the Steelers controlling the tempo and the scoreboard.

What were they thinking: This past week Broncos wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert called dropped passes "concentration issues," and if that’s the case the Broncos had concentration issues up and down the roster. The fourth quarter wasn’t even four minutes old and the Broncos had eight dropped passes, including two by Emmanuel Sanders and two by Bennie Fowler. In the second quarter the Broncos dropped passes on three plays during the same drive.

One reason to get excited: The Broncos seem to know how to wiggle out of tough spots. When things didn’t look like they were going right Sunday, they found a way to make a play that mattered -- most notably, Roby's forced fumble and Ware's recovery.

One reason to panic: Their problems on offense aren’t going away. Defenses will continue to load the area around the line of scrimmage because they don’t believe Manning can consistently hurt them down the field. The Broncos also haven’t protected all that well up front, and on Sunday a Steelers offense missing its best player still found plenty of room to work in the passing game, which doesn’t bode well with Tom Brady next up.

Fantasy watch: Anderson had several momentum-extending carries Sunday, and as the Broncos try to move through the postseason with Manning working on a hurt left foot, Anderson’s play could make a difference.

Ouch: The injury that will continue to bear watching is cornerback Chris Harris Jr.’s left shoulder injury. Harris suffered the injury in the regular-season finale and was limited in practice for the past two weeks. It affected Harris throughout Sunday’s game, and at one point the Broncos put Roby into the base defense in Harris’ spot and played Harris in the specialty packages. Safety Omar Bolden, who has battled a hamstring injury for weeks and is the Broncos’ best option at returner, left the game with a knee injury. Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas looked like he played with an ankle injury in the second half, but he did return to the game.

Game ball: Roby was having a tough day until he changed the game in the fourth quarter. Harris has consistently said one of the reasons Roby has a chance to be a long-term starter at cornerback is his ability to rebound after the tough plays. Roby was consistently isolated by the Steelers in coverage, and at a moment when he could have lost his composure, he made the play that pushed the Broncos into the next round,