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First Down/Fourth Down: Bolts keep it close, but Broncos advance to AFC title game

It wasn't pretty by any means, but Peyton Manning's Broncos got it done. It wasn't pretty by any means, but Peyton Manning's Broncos got it done. (Jed Jacobsohn/SI)

None of the divisional playoff games were pretty, but it's safe to say that most of America got the conference championships it wanted as a result. By beating the Carolina Panthers, the San Francisco 49ers punched their ticket to Seattle to renew the NFL's best current rivalry. And with their 24-17 win over the San Diego Chargers, the Denver Broncos advanced to their first AFC Championship Game since 2005, giving everyone another opportunity to see teams led by Peyton Manning and Tom Brady compete against each other.

For the Broncos, this win was the culmination of a process that had taken a year, and the elimination of a lot of bad memories. On Jan. 12, 2013, Denver lost a double-overtime heartbreaker to the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round and had all offseason to reflect on the missed opportunities. The road past those demons wasn't textbook, but it was good enough.

"We've worked on that all season," Manning told CBS' Tracy Wolfson about his team's ability to finish things this time. "When you have a game that ends like it did last year, it becomes an offseason focus point and an in-season focus point. You do a lot of situational work throughout the season -- first, our defense, game on the line, who's gonna win? It was good to see all that work pay off in that situation tonight. Hopefully, we can do it again next week."

Come Sunday, they'll hope to capitalize on the kinds of missed opportunities they missed against San Diego. Had everything gone according to plan, this could have been a blowout. But between their own red-zone fiascos and San Diego's stubborn refusal to go away quietly, the Broncos had quite the fight on their hands.

More observations from Denver's close victory:

• First Down: Denver's pass defense... for the most part.

The Broncos ranked 21st against the pass in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics this season, but they turned it around against Philip Rivers, especially in the first half. Rivers completed five-of-eight passes for just 20 yards in the game's first 30 minutes, and he was sacked three times. But as the game progressed, especially after cornerback Chris Harris was injured, Rivers started to find his groove, finishing with 18 completions in 27 attempts for 217 yards, two touchdowns and no picks. Rivers finally started to find rookie receiver Keenan Allen in the second half, and the Broncos had no answer for that -- especially cornerback Quentin Jammer. Allen finished his day with six catches for 142 yards and both of San Diego's touchdowns -- becoming the first rookie in the Super Bowl era to amass more than 100 yards and two scores in a playoff game -- and the Chargers had to be left wondering what might have been.

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• Fourth Down: D.J. Fluker's first drive.

Part of the problem in the first half was that Rivers didn't just suffer those three sacks, but also he was under constant pressure, and the Chargers punted on three of their first four drives. Right tackle D.J. Fluker was a problem, especially on San Diego's first drive. Fluker gave up sacks to end Jeremy Mincey and linebacker Shaun Phillips a few plays apart, and showed a vulnerability to inside moves that plagued him at Alabama, as well. The big rookie has a bright future, but he needs to be a bit more nimble out there.

• First Down: Peyton Manning's first drive.

While the Chargers were figuring things out on offense, Manning was carving their defense up. Denver's first drive was a 14-play, 86-yard masterpiece of no-huddle flash in which Manning hit five receivers and finished things off with a two-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas. Still, Manning threw for just 100 of his 250 yards in the first half, and this was an issue that would bite the Broncos all day: They left at least as many points on the field as they actually scored.

• Fourth Down: Denver's scoring aversion.

It wasn't pretty. There was an almost touchdown to Wes Welker that was dropped, a throw to Eric Decker in the red zone that was bobbled and picked off by linebacker Donald Butler, and a fumble by Julius Thomas that shouldn't have been a fumble at all (more on that later). Manning finished with 25 completions in 36 attempts, and had his receivers been on point all day, this game could have gotten out of hand a lot sooner than it actually did. Winning ugly is an important and valuable skill, and the Broncos proved that they have it, but there will be a lot of unpleasant tape review this week on the offensive side of things. Oh, and there was the Trindon Holliday kick return touchdown that was negated by a block in the back.

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• First Down: Donald Butler's red-zone pick.

Butler's interception near the end of the first half may have been set up by Decker's bobble, but it's worth reviewing anyway, because the fourth-year linebacker did an amazing job of keeping his feet in-bounds. Sadly, it was too late in the first half for the Chargers to capitalize ... which kind of summed up their day.

(GIF via Bleacher Report.)

• Fourth Down: What constitutes a catch? Does anybody know anymore?

Yes, we're all sick of the bad officiating narrative, but if the NFL is going to throw this many hanging sliders at us, who are we to keep the bat on our shoulder? The crew in this game was led by referee Clete Blakeman, who's had more than a few fiascos this season, and had more than one in this game. The most glaring was the ruling that Julius Thomas fumbled with 14:17 left in the second quarter and that the Chargers recovered the ball. The ruling was upheld, but it certainly didn't look like a catch -- not to us, and not to a couple of notable former officials.

(GIF via Bleacher Report.)

Later in the game, according to Pereira, Blakeman's crew had to be advised that they were spotting the ball on the wrong 45-yard line after a highly questionable pass interference penalty. As we've said many times before, this is unfortunately par for the course at this point -- with Blakeman, and with too many of his comrades.

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