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Broncos top Steelers, await Patriots in AFC Championship Game

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The Denver Broncos became the last team to join the NFL’s final four after they defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in Denver, 23-16 on Sunday. In a game featuring two eventual Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Denver’s Peyton Manning got the best of Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger.

Roethlisberger, playing on an injured shoulder from last week’s Wild Card game win over Cincinnati, threw for 339 yards and no touchdowns. He clearly missed his favorite target, All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown, who amassed 1,834 receiving yards during the regular season. Brown sat out the game with a concussion after an illegal hit by the Bengals’ Vontaze Burfict in last week’s game.

Manning, who started for the first time in seven games, passed for only 222 yards and no touchdowns. The Steelers’ defense played well, but Manning was the victim of several drops from his receivers.

Denver could manage only four field goals and trailed 13-12 with 10 minutes left. After Denver recovered a Fitzgerald Toussaint fumble, Manning led the Broncos to their only touchdown, a 1-yard plunge by C.J. Anderson, and 2-point conversion to take a 20-13 lead.

“The best thing we did was stay patient all game long,” said Manning. “When we needed it, we had the big drive and got that touchdown that put us up. Our defense answered the challenge.”

After trading field goals, Denver recovered an onside kick with 19 seconds remaining to seal the game. Each team added a field goal to close the scoring.

When the Broncos recovered an onside kick with 19 seconds remaining, Denver could celebrate and start to think about next week’s AFC Championship Game.

“We made it to this point with a lot of guys stepping up,” said Roethlisberger. “I am just really proud of the effort and next man up mentality.”

Next Sunday, the New England Patriots visit Denver. It will be another future Hall of Fame quarterback matchup, this time New England’s Tom Brady against Manning. It will be the fifth playoff meeting between the two legends, with each winning twice.

Manning is 1-0 against Brady as a Bronco, including a 26-16 victory in the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 19, 2014. Brady won two of their three playoff appearances while Manning played in Indianapolis.

New England is playing in their fifth consecutive AFC title game. Their last appearance was one year ago when the Patriots routed Indianapolis in the now-infamous “Deflategate” game.

The Carolina Panthers will host the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday.

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Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

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