BIG OPPORTUNITY

The Colts, a playoff team each of the past six seasons, on Sunday will visit the defending AFC West champion San Diego Chargers with a chance to not only move three games ahead of the Chargers with five games remaining, but to damage San Diego's playoff hopes.

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Colts Seek Fourth Consecutive Victory to Improve Playoff Positioning
INDIANAPOLIS – The Colts have been here before, albeit with a slight twist.

And the way Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy sees it, not only is it a good place to be, and a time of opunity, it's an opportunity that needn't be ignored.

The Colts, a playoff team each of the past six seasons, on Sunday will visit the defending AFC West champion San Diego Chargers with a chance to not only move three games ahead of the Chargers with five games remaining, but to damage San Diego's playoff hopes.

That, Dungy said, is the reality.

It's something Dungy said he has discussed with Colts players.

And if the Colts are to make a seventh consecutive playoff appearance, Dungy said it's the sort of opportunity that must be turned into reality.

"That's where it is," Dungy said as the Colts (6-4) prepared to play the Chargers (4-6) at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Cal., Sunday at 8:15 p.m.

"It's another team we're basically competing against – not for the division, but for a playoff spot. (If the Colts win Sunday), they (the Chargers) would have to win four more games than us in the last five, so this would virtually do it for us if we can beat them.

"That's the way we have to look at it. Every team we play we have to say, 'This is our competition. We have to put them behind us.'"

The Colts, who have won the AFC South each of the past five seasons, remain four games behind South leader Tennessee (10-0), the NFL's last remaining unbeaten team.

But while the Colts' division-title hopes have slimmed in recent weeks, they followed a two-game losing streak in late October with a three-game winning streak – including victories over playoff-contending New England and Pittsburgh – to ascend to the AFC's No. 5 seed.

Although the Colts are among five AFC teams tied at 6-4, they hold the fifth spot over Baltimore (6-4), Miami (6-4) and New England (6-4) because of a superior AFC record. The Denver Broncos are also 6-4 and lead the West by two games.

Pittsburgh (8-3) and the New York Jets (7-3) lead the North and East, respectively.

There are currently 11 teams in the AFC with records of 4-6 or better, with the Buffalo Bills at 5-5 and the Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars – playoff teams last season – each 4-6. Six teams make the playoffs from each conference – the champions of the four divisions and the two teams with the best records among non-division winners.

"It's just on to the next opponent," Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said. "We're still beat up, still have some key players that have been injured and haven't been playing. When that's the case, you're always going to be fighting and grinding and having to step up in certain spots. That's going to be the case from here on out, it seems like. We're still just trying to fight and scratch our way and hopefully can find a way to get a win this week, but it'll be tough. . . .

"We've always talked about trying to get on some kind of streak. We put ourselves in a hole early in the season, and we're truly taking it one week at a time."

Because of the margin of Tennessee's lead, Dungy said the Colts' focus has shifted a bit in recent weeks. In past seasons, the focus was on division games, and Dungy often told players and media the games counted double because of the chance to win and give a division team a loss.

This season, with the wild-card race a priority, Dungy and Colts players have said in recent weeks conference games against teams such as New England and Pittsburgh have had a division feel.

And that, players said, is the sort of feel the game against the Chargers – who beat the Colts in the regular season and postseason last season – has, too.

"They're going to come out with everything, with their backs against the wall," Colts defensive end Raheem Brock said. "But we're trying to get to where we want to be. We also have things from last year on our mind, so it should be a real good game. We're expecting their best and they'll get our best.

"We started off a little bit slow, so we're trying to work our way up to be on the top of the list for that playoff spot. Every AFC game is double the importance."

Although the Colts have moved from under .500 to fifth in the AFC in three weeks, and although they have tiebreakers over Baltimore, New England and Pittsburgh because of head-to-head victories, Dungy said there's a keen awareness of how quickly that status can change.

"We've lost our margin for error, so that's what we have emphasized – that we can't have a week where you let one slip away because you didn't do everything you could," Dungy said. "I think our guys have bought into that and in the last month, we've played well.

"We're going to have to continue that for another six weeks."

While the Chargers, like the Colts, enter Sunday's game with little margin for error, they also are entering a stretch of three consecutive games at Qualcomm Stadium, where they are 3-1 this season and 18-2 over the last 20 games.

"It's always easier when you've got your crowd behind you and you can feed off their energy," Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson told Chargers.com this week. "We've been good at home the last couple of years and we need to continue that to get us on track."

And while they trail Denver by two games, they play host to the Broncos in the regular-season finale.

"Everything we set out to do this year is still out there to be accomplished," Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. "I'm not trying to make the situation sound good. It's not going to be easy, but the door is not shut.

"As many people that are going to write us off, we've got to find a way to make up a game in the next five. That's all we can do right now as players."

The Chargers, Dungy said, are more than capable of making up such ground.

He said this week the Chargers have played at times as well as any team in the AFC, particularly during one-sided victories over the playoff-contending New York Jets and New England Patriots. Three of San Diego's losses – at home against Carolina and at Denver and Pittsburgh – came in the final minute.

"We've had some unusual situations, there's no question about it," Chargers Head Coach Norv Turner said. "This league is that way. You look at the games every week, there are games that are coming down to the wire, they're coming down to getting one more first down or stopping a team from getting a first down, making a field goal or finding a way to keep a team from getting in field goal range."

Said Manning, "We are playing a really good team this Sunday. Their record is not indicative of the kind of team they are if you watch the films of the games. Carolina beats them on the last play of the game, and Denver beats them on the last play of the game.

"They easily could be 8-2 or 7-3 right now. They are a very talented team and always tough when you play them out there."

The Chargers last season beat the Colts 23-21 in San Diego in the regular season, and 28-24 in an AFC Divisional Playoffs. Both games were decided in the final two minutes, and Manning said there's little reason to think Sunday's game won't be similar.

The game is a chance to extend a winning streak Dungy said the Colts very much needed, one that came during a stretch of seven AFC games in seven weeks. Sunday's game against the Chargers is yet another such game, a conference game in a year where conference games suddenly feel very much like division games once felt.

"It was a streak where we needed to play well and fortunately we have," Dungy said. "We have another one (Sunday) where we have a team that's competing for a playoff spot with us. If we get the head-to-head over them (the Chargers), that's going to put us in great shape because with all of the AFC teams we have played we'll basically have the tiebreakers over them.

"We said the AFC games would be very, very critical. When you're zeroing in on the wild card that becomes the first tiebreaker in many cases. You have to win those AFC games."

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