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Monday, December 29, 2008
In San Diego, Colts should be the favorites

By Paul Kuharsky
ESPN.com

 
 Brian Spurlock/US Presswire
 Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning has put the Colts on his back and willed his team into the playoffs this year.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

INDIANAPOLIS -- The seeds say they are the AFC's fifth-best team and dictate that they hit the road.

Plenty of NFL experts, however, will be surprised if the 12-4 Colts don't go to 8-8 San Diego Saturday, dispatch the Chargers while winning their 10th consecutive game and storm into a divisional round trip to Nashville or Pittsburgh.

The Colts lost a divisional round game at the RCA Dome last January to the Chargers, but won 23-20 at San Diego on Nov. 23.

"We've played them a couple times the past couple years and they gave us some fits," said Indianapolis offensive lineman Charlie Johnson. "We got them earlier in the year, but their offense and Philip Rivers are playing unbelievably right now and their defensive is good, that's just the bottom line, they've been good and even without [Shawne] Merriman they're still trying to bring the pressure."

"It's going to be a tough game. We're going to have to go out there and do what we do, just play our game. I wouldn't say we owe them one, but it's in the back of our minds. We want to go out there and beat them. We've got a nice little streak going and we'd like to keep it going and end their year just like they did us."

Said cornerback Kelvin Hayden: "It's a big challenge. They always play us well. I think we'll respond well."

Are the Colts ready?

They'd certainly rather be enjoying a bye week, but they knew long ago that wasn't going to happen because the Titans had rushed out to such a big lead in the AFC South. Middle linebacker Gary Brackett might still be a week away, but they may be in relatively good health otherwise.

Safety Bob Sanders, a huge difference-maker, didn't play in the game in San Diego earlier this season but will be rested and ready this time.

A good showing by the backups in Sunday's 23-0 win over Tennessee at Lucas Oil Stadium gives the Colts a good feeling heading into their preparations for wild card weekend.

"It was good to see the backups go in there and play productive football," Hayden said. "That says a lot. We said all week we wanted to go into the playoffs with a win, don't have a loss hanging over us going into the playoffs. It was a good deal, and I think we're ready."

Said rookie offensive lineman Jamey Richard: "It showed today that no matter who's out there, we can play as a unit and get it done."

The Colts got a combined 91 rushing yards from Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes in the win at San Diego. Rushing offense has been an issue, and while Peyton Manning has been able to will his team to some wins with minimal rushing offense, balance is usually the preferred and necessary method in the postseason.

Are they ready?

"We have no choice," Manning said. "We need to have a good week of practice. I think the biggest key during our win streak is we have had that good preparation. So the main focus now is having a good week of practice."

The Chargers out gained the Colts 394 yards to 341 in the regular-season meeting. Nate Kaeding's 47-yard field goal with 1:35 remaining pulled San Diego even. But the Chargers couldn't get to overtime, allowing Manning to move the Colts 37 yards in 1:30 to a 51-yard Adam Vinatieri field goal that won it with two seconds left.

Odds are third-down defense will be a theme for both teams as they prepare for a rematch with significantly higher stakes. The Chargers converted half their third downs and were outdone by the Colts, who stayed on the field 58 percent of the time.

"We expect to win," Johnson said. "That's what we're going out to try to do. It doesn't matter if we're favored. It doesn't matter if we're underdogs. We've been favored some this year and we lost. We've been underdogs and we've won. We'll go out there and just play."

Win it and the Colts earn another rematch -- either in Pittsburgh, where they beat the Steelers on Nov.9, or in Nashville, where they suffered their last loss way back on Oct. 27.