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Broncos, 49ers punch tickets for final four

DENVER — The Denver Broncos survived a fourth-quarter fightback by the San Diego Chargers to claim a 24-17 win on Sunday and advance to the AFC Championship game for the first time in eight years.

The victory sets up a tantalizing showdown between two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks next Sunday when Tom Brady and the New England Patriots visit the Mile High city to take on Peyton Manning and the Broncos with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line.

“It’s Broncos verses the Patriots, certainly Tom and I have played a lot but when you get to the AFC championship it’s about two good teams that did a lot to get there,” said Manning. “They’re a great team, they had a big win last night so we are going to enjoy this one tonight and start to work on them tomorrow and it ought to be a heck of a game.”

The red-hot Chargers arrived in Denver riding the momentum from a five-game winning streak and had looked poised to keep their season alive with a fourth quarter rally that cut Denver’s 17-point advantage to seven.

“All-in-all I think our defense played one of its better games,” said Broncos head coach John Fox. “It’s about doing your job, doing it under pressure but we’re going to have to play a lot better going forward.”

49ers 23, Panthers 10

The San Francisco 49ers have enjoyed a great run of success the last three years but the bar is set high, with nothing less than a Super Bowl triumph needed to satisfy them.

The wild card 49ers reached the NFC Championship game for the third year in a row with their 23-10 road victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday and tied the Pittsburgh Steelers for the most appearances (15) in a conference title game since 1970.

“We’re healthy. We’re a great team. We just want to do whatever it takes to get the ring,” 49ers running back Frank Gore said. “We didn’t finish last year but we’ll be back.”

Standing in the way of a return to the Big Dance are San Francisco’s NFC West division rivals, the top-seeded Seattle Seahawks who have won 16 of their last 17 games at home, where they will host the 49ers next Sunday.

“It’s perfect,” said Niners linebacker NaVorro Bowman, despite having absorbed a 29-3 drubbing the last time the teams met in Seattle in Week Two of the season. “We’ve been on the road, and we’re winning.

“All excuses go out the window as we prepare this week and make sure we get this ‘W’ next week.

“They’re hungry,” he said about Seattle. “We’re hungry. We’ve been (to the Super Bowl). We had a nasty taste in our mouth. It’s going to be a fight.”