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DENVER — The road to Super Bowl 50 in the AFC will go through Sports Authority Field at Mile High — barely — thanks to Peyton Manning and the Broncos defense.
The Broncos overcame five turnovers — four in the first half — and Manning came off the bench in the third quarter to lead four scoring drives and boost Denver to a 27-20 win over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday, securing the AFC West for the fifth consecutive year and the top seed in the AFC for the third time in four years. The Broncos finished the regular season 12-4, tied with the New England Patriots and the Cincinnati Bengals. But because the Broncos beat both during the regular season, they were rewarded with the top spot in the AFC. They got it after the Patriots lost their second consecutive game, falling to the Miami Dolphins, 20-10, and dropping to the No. 2 spot. The Bengals, the champions of the AFC North, are the No. 3 seed with AFC South champ Houston the No. 4 spot. The Kansas City Chiefs, who had a shot to overtake the Broncos as AFC West champs, took the No. 5 spot and will play at Houston next weekend in the wild-card round. The Pittsburgh Steelers are the No. 6 seed after beating the Cleveland Browns and the New York Jets lost to the Buffalo Bills. The Steelers will play at the Bengals next weekend. The Broncos scored on the second play of the game on a 72-yard touchdown pass from Brock Osweiler to Demaryius Thomas. But they turned over the ball four times in the first and on their first possession of the third quarter, falling behind, 13-7. That’s when coach Gary Kubiak called on Manning to bail out the offense. Manning, playing for the first time since he was yanked during a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Nov. 15, led an 80-yard touchdown drive on his first possession to put the Broncos ahead. After falling behind, 20-17, in the fourth quarter, Manning again led scoring drives, with Brandon McManus making a field goal to tie the game and after the defense got its first turnover, Ronnie Hillman had a 23-yard touchdown run with 4:44 to play to make it 27-20. The Broncos will play their first playoff game at 2:40 p.m. Jan. 17 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. They will play the Steelers if Pittsburgh wins next weekend, or the Chiefs-Texans winner if the Bengals win. It’s the fourth consecutive year the Broncos have earned a first-round bye, though only once have they made the Super Bowl with the bye in that span. Three years ago, they lost in the divisional round to the Baltimore Ravens in double overtime. Two years ago, the Broncos reached Super Bowl XLVIII, losing to the Seattle Seahawks, 43-8. Last year with a bye, the Broncos lost at home to the Indianapolis Colts. Relive the Broncos’ thrilling win over the Chargers below as it unfolded at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. *** The Broncos jumped to a 7-0 lead on the second play of the game. Brock Osweiler found Demaryius Thomas in the right flat. Thomas tiptoed down the sideline, cut back between two defenders, stumbled,  then deashed into the end zone for a 72-yard score just 31 seconds into the game. The play was reviewed because it appeared Thomas stepped out, but the score was upheld. The Chargers responded with a 10-play, 48-yard drive that stalled and resulted in a 50-yard field goal by Josh Lambo to make it 7-3 with 10:10 left in the first quarter. The Broncos let the Chargers hang around in the first quarter. Emmanuel Sanders made a nice catch and run and got to the 5-yard line, but he had the ball snagged out his arms from cornerback Steve Williams, who recovered. After the defense forced a three-and-out the Broncos again got into Chargers territory, but on third down, an Osweiler pass went through the hands of Jordan Norwood and was intercepted by Williams. Williams continued to feast on the Broncos offense in the second quarter when he hit Osweiler from behind. Osweiler fumbled and the Chargers recovered, their third takeaway in their territory in the game and leaving them in the game. This despite the Broncos’ dominance with 237 yards in the first quarter to only 68 for the Chargers. The turnover bug continued midway through the second quarter when Osweiler was intercepted for the second time, this time by the Chargers’ Adrian Phillips on a tipped pass. But the defense continued to bail out the offense, holding the Chargers to a 42-yard field goal by Lambo to make it 7-6 with 5:52 to play in the first half. The Broncos finished the first half dominating the stat sheet, with 279 yards to the Chargers’ 93. Osweiler was 13 of 21 for 22 yards, but the four turnovers kept San Diego in the game. The Broncos didn’t fix their turnover woes in the second half when C.J. Anderson fumbled at the Broncos 32-yard line early in the third quarter. The Chargers converted the great field position into a touchdown, with Philip Rivers finding Antonio Gates on a 13-yard pass to give the Chargers a 13-7 lead with 8:18 left in the third quarter. The Broncos then swapped out Osweiler and brought in Peyton Manning at quarterback — and the results were immediate. Coming onto the field to a standing ovation, Manning quickly provided the offensive spark the Broncos needed, driving them 80 yards in eight plays in 2:54 capped by a 1-yard touchdown run by Anderson to reclaim the lead, 14-13, with 5:24 to play in the third quarter. After the Broncos defense held on fourth down, Manning led a seven-play, 32-yard drive that was capped by a 48-yard field goal by Brandon McManus to make it 17-13 with 13:09 to play in the game. But on the next play, the Chargers retook the lead when Rivers found a wide-open Tyrell Williams in the middle of the field to make it 20-17 with less than 13 minutes to play. The Broncos then moved the ball into Chargers territory, but the drive stalled and they had to settle for a 35-yard field goal from McManus to tie the game, 20-20 with 9:45 to play. The Broncos defense finally got its first turnover late in the fourth quarter when Shiloh Keo intercepted Rivers and on the next play, Ronnie Hillman went off the right side for a 23-yard touchdown run to make it 27-20 with 4:44 to play.