After struggling through the first two months of the season, the Indianapolis Colts regrouped to secure a seventh consecutive trip to the playoffs. The San Diego Chargers faced a bit more adversity en route to clinching their third straight postseason berth.
Indianapolis, winner of nine straight games, and San Diego, which has won four in a row, meet for the second consecutive year in the playoffs and for the second time this season on Saturday night in an AFC wild-card game.
Indianapolis (12-4) endured four defeats in its first seven contests this year, but closed out the regular season with nine straight wins, including 23-20 at AFC West champion San Diego (8-8) on Nov. 23. That victory came after the defending Super Bowl champion Colts were eliminated by the Chargers from last season’s playoffs with a 28-24 home loss in the divisional round.
Indianapolis, coming off its league-record sixth straight 12-win season, had its five-year reign as the AFC South champion snapped by top-seeded Tennessee, but extended its playoff streak to seven, having reached every year since coach Tony Dungy’s arrival in 2002.
“How you got here, what you’ve done in the past - we all know it’s pretty irrelevant,” quarterback Peyton Manning told the Colts’ official Web site. “It’s kind of who plays better on that day, but it’s nice to know we found ourselves in a hole and kind of answered the question, ‘Could we dig ourselves out?’”
San Diego’s postseason journey was a bit more grueling as it lost eight of its first 12 games, including a three-game slide at the end of November.
The Chargers surged in the final month of the season, however, winning all four of their games to improve to 14-0 in December since 2006 and advance to the playoffs for the third year in a row. No NFL team had reached postseason play after starting 4-8.
Capping the late-season surge was Sunday’s 52-21 home victory over Denver, which gave San Diego its third straight division title after trailing the Broncos by three games with three remaining.
The Chargers, who went 3-7 against teams outside the AFC West, became the first club since 1985 to win a division with a .500 record.
“It’s a pretty strange season, ain’t it? But it’s good to be in this position, no doubt, to say that you’re division champs again, to be going to the playoffs and be hosting a playoff game,” running back LaDainian Tomlinson said. “That’s a great feeling for us.”
Tomlinson carried 14 times for 96 yards and a season-high three touchdowns against Denver before leaving late in the third quarter with a strained groin. He finished 10th in the league with 1,110 yards and had 11 rushing touchdowns this season to give him 126 for his career - second only to Emmitt Smith (164).
Manning also established history Sunday, extending his own league record for 4,000-yard passing seasons to nine in a 23-0 win over the Titans. He left the game after the opening possession, finishing 7-of-7 for 95 yards with one touchdown.
Manning has completed 72.1 percent of his passes while throwing 17 touchdowns and only three interceptions in the last nine games. The Colts finished fifth in the league with 255.9 passing yards per contest.
On Friday, Manning joined Brett Favre as the only three-time winners of The Associated Press NFL Most Valuable Player Award.
“It’s been the most rewarding regular season that I’ve been a part of in my 11 years, and I have to believe a lot of the other players and even coaches might feel the same way,” said Manning, who finished with 27 touchdown passes, 12 interceptions and a 95.0 passer rating.
San Diego’s offense, directed by quarterback Philip Rivers, was 10th in the NFL with 358.4 yards per game. First in the league with a 105.5 passer rating, Rivers was fifth with 4,009 yards - seven more than Manning - and tied New Orleans’ Drew Brees for the most touchdown passes with a franchise-record 34.
Rivers now faces a Colts defense that’s allowed just six touchdown passes - the fewest ever by a team in a 16-game season. That unit, though, will be without linebacker and defensive captain Gary Brackett, who will miss his fifth straight game with a cracked bone in his lower right leg.
Starting guard Mike Pollak and backup center Jamey Richard, both rookies, injured their ankles against Tennessee and are questionable. But the Colts may get a boost from the return of two-time Pro Bowl safety and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders, who told the team’s site he expects to be ready for Saturday.
Tomlinson’s status depends on whether he can practice during the week. Including playoffs, he’s rushed for 345 yards and two touchdowns while catching 17 passes for 175 yards and a score in five appearances against the Colts.
The last three matchups between these teams have been decided by a combined nine points, with the Chargers winning twice. Manning went 32-for-44 for 255 yards and two TDs, while Rivers was 24-for-31 for 288 yards and two scores in November’s meeting, which Indianapolis won on an Adam Vinatieri 51-yard field goal as time expired.