By Rose Street
DENVER (AP/UTC The Loop) — Wes Welker isn’t looking back at his unhappy homecoming in Foxborough in November or his six seasons with Tom Brady in New England as he prepares for the Patriots’ visit to Denver next Sunday.
“It’s the AFC championship game, there’s going to be plenty of juice,” Welker said after catching a touchdown pass from Peyton Manning in Denver’s 24-17 win over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday.
Welker had six receptions in his return from a concussion that had sidelined him for a month, and he wore an oversized safety helmet that drew comparisons to Dark Helmet from “Spaceballs” and The Great Gazoo from the Flintstones.
“I’ve been practicing with it the last few weeks, so I got used to it,” Welker said. “It does kind of look like the Jetsons out there.”
Welker’s return helped the Broncos flip their time-of-possession deficit against the Chargers, who had held the ball for more than 38 minutes in both of their regular season meetings, including a 27-20 win in Denver in December.
The Broncos (14-3) will host the Patriots (13-4), who beat them 34-31 in overtime on Nov. 24 in New England.
Welker was trying to make a fair catch of a punt in the wind but didn’t call off his blockers in time and the ball hit teammate Tony Carter. The Patriots recovered and kicked the game-winning field goal.
The Patriots beat Indianapolis 43-22 to advance to their third straight conference championship. The Broncos are back for the first time in eight years.
Five things that helped the Broncos avoid another Mile High meltdown like their crushing loss to Baltimore in last year’s playoffs:
THIRD-DOWN THEATRICS: The last time these teams played, the Chargers converted 6 of 12 third downs and controlled the clock for 38 minutes while the Broncos sorely missed Welker and were just 2 for 9 on third downs.
This time, Denver was 9 for 13 — the 69 percent the highest of any team in this year’s postseason — and the Chargers were just 4 of 12.
The Broncos’ biggest conversions were the three they had on their final drive, including a 21-yard catch by Julius Thomas on third-and-17 from their own 20, which allowed them to salt away the win. That’s something they weren’t able to do in their crushing 38-35 loss in double-overtime to the Ravens exactly a year earlier.
“I felt like that game last year forced us to address those types of situations all season long,” Manning said. “We’ve worked on it in training camp, we’ve worked on it in the season. … It was nice that all that hard work paid off for us.”
MANNING’S MAGIC: Manning drew five different defenders into committing neutral zone infractions with a cadence that had the Chargers flustered.
“They were doing a hard count, but that’s not an excuse for us jumping offside,” San Diego linebacker Melvin Ingram said. “We need to be more disciplined than that.”
“Yeah, that’s giving a very good quarterback a lot of freebies,” Chargers coach Mike McCoy said.
The penalties helped Manning give the Broncos a 17-0 lead on his way to snapping a personal three-game losing streak in the postseason, where he improved to 10-11 with his first win since leading Indianapolis over the Jets 30-17 in the AFC championship game on Jan. 24, 2010.
GRIND IT OUT: All four teams that are still alive in the playoffs can thank their ground games. Knowshon Moreno gained 82 yards on 23 carries and Montee Ball added 52 yards on 10 runs. This, after the Broncos managed just 18 yards on 11 carries against the Chargers in their loss to San Diego last month.
“It was just working out so well for us today that we wanted to stick with it,” Thomas said. “Our running backs did a great job of running the ball and earning tough yards.”
SLOW-STARTING CHARGERS: The Broncos shut down Philip Rivers until cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who played more snaps than any of Denver’s defenders during the regular season, went out with knee and ankle injuries early in the second half.
Rivers finally found the end zone with a 16-yard toss to Keenan Allen early in the fourth quarter, then found him again for a 49-yard gain on fourth-and-5 from his own 25-yard line with seven minutes left and the Chargers trailing 24-7.
The Broncos held on, but mostly because Manning & Co. kept Rivers on the sideline after the Chargers cut the lead to 24-17.
“I know one thing: we can’t be complacent where we are,” Champ Bailey said. “We have to be a much better team because we have a much better quarterback and team coming in here next week.”
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Broncos overcame some big blunders on special teams. Eric Decker, who also flubbed a fourth-quarter onside kick that San Diego recovered, tripped at the 30-yard line on what would have been a 77-yard punt return touchdown.
“I guess it was just that invisible fence again that got me,” said Decker, who tripped over the 45-yard line on his way to an 85-yard score against San Diego last season. “Got a little excited, tripped myself and wish I could have that play back.”
Trindon Holliday’s 105-yard kickoff return for a touchdown was negated by Omar Bolden’s block in the back on a defender that wasn’t going to make the play.
Holliday, however, secured the pooch kick with 3:51 left that led to Denver’s game-sealing drive.
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham contributed.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org
Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.