(Reuters) - The Denver Broncos overcame an unspectacular outing by Peyton Manning on Sunday to earn a gritty 23-16 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers and set up a marquee quarterback matchup in next week’s AFC title game.
The 39-year-old Manning, back in the starting lineup for the first time since a disastrous outing in mid-November, was shaky at times but leaned on his team’s defense and running game to put Denver one win away from a Super Bowl berth.
“Our defense is guiding us, let’s make that clear,” Manning told reporters after completing 21-of-37 passes for 222 yards with no scores or interceptions.
“Down in the fourth quarter, (we got a) great play by our defense. They answered the challenge.”
The Broncos trailed the Steelers 13-12 in the fourth when defensive back Bradley Roby forced a fumble from Pittsburgh running back Fitzgerald Toussaint.
Denver recovered the ball and drove 65 yards, going ahead on C.J. Anderson’s one-yard touchdown with three minutes remaining. The Broncos added a two-point conversion and another field goal to go ahead 23-13.
Pittsburgh responded with a field goal in the final minute to pull within seven points but they were unable to gain possession of the ensuing onside kick.
The top-seeded Broncos, who earned a bye through last week’s wild-card round, will face the New England Patriots next week in what will be the fifth playoff encounter, and 17th all-time, between Manning and fellow quarterback Tom Brady.
Ailing Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 339 yards while playing without injured receiver Antonio Brown, but the visitors could not deliver a final answer against the Broncos defense.
“They’re the number one defense in the world, there’s a reason for that,” Roethlisberger said of Denver. “We dealt with a lot of issues this year. A lot of teams would have quit and we didn’t.
“I’m obviously disappointed but really proud of the effort.”
Pittsburgh pass catcher Martavis Bryant stepped up with 154 receiving yards and 40 rushing in place of All Pro Brown, who was concussed last week against Cincinnati.
Roethlisberger entered with a shoulder injury but kept his team afloat. The Steelers led 10-9 at halftime, and moved in front 13-9 in the third quarter of a windy affair that was tough on both offenses.
Brandon McManus kicked five field goals for Denver who also totaled 109 yards on the ground.
Manning played through several drops by his receivers just as he has fought through all adversity sent his way in the past two months.
After a four-interception game in November, a combination of poor performance and injury saw him benched in favor of Brock Osweiler.
Then last month, a report surfaced that linked Manning to the illegal use of human growth hormone following neck surgery in 2011.
Manning strongly denied the claims, and made a return to the field in relief of Osweiler in a regular season finale victory over the San Diego Chargers.
Now he is back in the conference title game for a fifth time.
Reporting by Jahmal Corner in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank Pingue and Mark Lamport-Stokes