DENVER — Peyton Manning led a go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter following a Pittsburgh turnover, and the Denver Broncos beat the Steelers 23-16 Sunday to advance to the AFC title game for the second time in three years.
The Broncos, who also got five field goals from Brandon McManus, will host the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game next Sunday.
Manning, making his first start since playing ineffectively in a Week 10 loss to Kansas City while fighting a foot injury, finally put together a sustained drive after Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby punched the ball from the grasp of running back Fitzgerald Toussaint and Denver linebacker DeMarcus Ware recovered the fumble for the Broncos at the 35-yard line with 9:52 left to play.
Manning hit the biggest pass play of the game for Denver on 3rd and 12, connecting with wide receiver Bennie Fowler on a 31-yard completion to the Pittsburgh 36. From there, running backs Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson alternated on key runs to move the chains before Anderson broke through for a touchdown from 1-yard out with 3:00 remaining.
Then, Manning, who led his 55th career game-winning drive in the fourth-quarter or overtime and second in his playoff career, passed to wide receiver Demaryius Thomas for the two-point conversion and a seven-point Denver advantage.
Manning completed 21 of 37 passes for 222 yards.
After Denver held Pittsburgh, forcing the ball back to the Broncos on downs, McManus kicked a 45-yard field goal with 53 seconds left to play to make it a two-score lead. The Steelers managed another field goal by Chris Boswell of 49 yards with 19 seconds left but Anderson recovered the Steelers’ onside kick try and Manning took a knee to run out the last few seconds.
The Steelers could overcome playing the game without two of its top offensive playmakers, wide receiver Antonio Brown, who suffered a concussion in the Steelers’ Wild Card win over Cincinnati last week, and running back DeAngelo Williams, who has been sidelined with a foot injury.
Ben Roethlisberger, playing through a shoulder injury, completed 24 of 37 passes and with 339 yards, topped 300 for the second time this season against the Broncos. No other quarterback has topped 300 against Denver this season.
McManus’ fourth field goal, a 41-yarder with 2:45 remaining in the third quarter, pulled the Broncos to within a point. Denver’s drive stalled in part when linebacker James Harrison set back the Broncos with a sack of Manning.
Earlier in the third, the Steelers got a 28-yard field goal from Boswell.
Plagued by eight drops in the game by intended receivers and ragged offensive play, the Broncos were limited to three field goals by McManus, including a 51-yarder kicked through swirling winds as time expired in the second quarter and trailed the Steelers 10-9 at halftime.
Pittsburgh surged in front with the help of a big play by wide receiver Martavis Bryant, who shook free for a 40-yard gain on a reverse play to the Denver 16. Toussaint followed with a pair of runs, including a 1-yarder for the touchdown to put the Steelers up 7-6.
Bryant had two carries for a team-high 40 yards and nine receptions for a game-best 154 yards.
The Steelers added a 43-yard field goal by Boswell in the second quarter, set up a 58-yard pass completion to Darrius Heyward-Bey on a blown coverage by the Broncos.
On its first two scoring drives, Denver started out at Pittsburgh’s 30 and 31 yard line, following a 42-yard punt return by Omar Bolden and the first of two 27-yard punts shanked by Pittsburgh’s Jordan Berry.
But McManus came on to kick a 28-yarder after Manning’s third-down pass to Anderson came up a yard short of the first down. McManus added a 41-yard field goal after a subsequent drive stalled on a third-down incompletion.
NOTES: Steelers LB Arthur Moats went out in the first quarter with a pectoral injury. He did not return. … Broncos DB Omar Bolden went out in the second quarter with a knee injury. He did not return … Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was leveled in a sideline collision late in the second quarter, when Steelers WR Martavis Bryant was driven out of bounds on a reverse. Phillips shook off the hit and continued calling the defensive plays. … Broncos QB Peyton Manning and Patriots QB Tom Brady will meet Sunday for the 16th time and the fourth matchup between the legendary passers in the AFC Championship game.