After Two Months of Playoff-Type Games, Colts Begin Postseason at San Diego
INDIANAPOLIS – The Colts have been here before. Many, many times.
They were here in 2002. And the next year.
And every year since.
As imant to Head Coach Tony Dungy is that in a very real sense the Colts have been here nearly every week for the past two months. Because where they are now is where 11 other NFL teams are: in the postseason, and if the path there weren't as clear and certain as recent seasons, Dungy and Colts players said this week that may be OK.
A must-win situation? Win-or-go-home?
The Colts were there often this season – from Halloween until a week before Christmas – and Dungy said while that made for a stressful season, it made for a successful one, too.
And more than that, it made for a team prepared for the postseason, a postseason that will begin Saturday night in a familiar place far, far from home.
"It's really been that way since Week 8," Dungy said early this week as the Colts (12-4) prepared to play the AFC West Champion San Diego Chargers (8-8) in an AFC Wild Card Playoff game at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Cal., Saturday at 8 p.m.
"The guys have done a good job. A lot of the games have developed differently, and we've found ways to win them. We've won in tough venues. It's going to be tougher in the playoffs. It's always harder to go back, so we have to understand that.
"The second time around will be tougher, but I like the way it's developed."
The Colts, who Saturday will make a seventh consecutive postseason appearance – the longest such active streak in the NFL – will enter this season as a Wild Card team after winning five consecutive AFC South titles.
That means they will open the playoffs on the road despite finishing four games better than their first-round opponent: the Chargers, who in December became the first team in league history to win a division after trailing by three games with three games remaining.
It will be the Colts' third trip to San Diego in 15 months, with Indianapolis having lost there, 23-21, in November 2007 and having won there, 23-20, this past November. The Chargers eliminated the Colts from last year's postseason, winning in Indianapolis, 28-24, in an AFC Divisional Playoff game.
The Chargers this season became the first team since 1985 to win a division with an 8-8 record, and with victories in their last four games, they became the first team in NFL history to make the postseason after starting the season 4-8.
The Colts, like the Chargers, needed a late-season run to make the postseason, and after starting 5-0, 13-0, 9-0 and 7-0 in 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2007 to lead the AFC South from start to finish each season, Indianapolis' route to this year's postseason was decidedly different.
With quarterback Peyton Manning missing training camp and preseason, the Colts lost their season-opener, and lost again in Week 3 to Jacksonville. They improved to 3-2 after an early bye week, but lost back-to-back road games by double digits to Green Bay and Tennessee in late October.
That left the Colts 3-4 after seven games for the first time in a decade.
The Colts beat New England, 18-15, at Lucas Oil Stadium the following week, then won their next eight games, finishing the season with a nine-game winning streak – which tied a season-opening streak in 2006 – for the Colts' second-longest regular-season winning streak under Dungy.
"We feel like we've been playing elimination games these past six, seven weeks," Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said. "We felt like if we would have lost we couldn't have caught up to whoever – New England, Baltimore – the other Wild Card teams we were playing against.
"We have had a lot of pressure on us. We've put pressure on ourselves these past eight weeks. It's nice to know you can answer the bell when you challenge yourself and they're must-win games and you have to do it. It's nice to be able to do it."
The Colts during the streak not only won, they beat teams contending for the postseason. New England finished as the first team since 1985 to win 11 games and not make the playoffs, and Indianapolis also beat AFC North Champion Pittsburgh (24-20) on the road, AFC West Champion San Diego (23-20) on the road and AFC South champion Tennessee (23-0) at home during the streak.
Indianapolis this season went 5-1 against playoff teams, beating Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, San Diego and Tennessee and losing to Tennessee. The Colts finished 8-2 against teams that finished .500 or above.
And unlike past seasons, when the Colts sometimes routinely won games by double-digit margins with a high-powered offense as the centerpiece, the Colts this season have won enough close games that Manning in the second half of the season often referred to team as grinding its way to victories.
The Colts, who in 2005 set an NFL record by winning their first 13 games by seven or more points, this season won eight games by a touchdown or less. They tied an NFL record by rallying from 10 or more points four times to win on the road – at NFC North Champion Minnesota, at AFC North Champion Pittsburgh, at Houston and at Jacksonville – with the Minnesota, Houston and Jacksonville victories coming after the Colts trailed by at least 10 points in the fourth quarter.
They trailed Minnesota, Jacksonville and Houston by at least 14 points. No previous team ever had overcome a 14-point deficit to win on the road three times in one seasons.
The Colts' offense, which had ranked in the Top 10 in eight of the previous nine seasons, ranked 15th this season, and in two of the victories during the winning streak – at Cleveland and at Jacksonville – the game-winning points came on defensive touchdowns.
"It really was (different)," Dungy said of the season. "There were a lot of different elements contributing and everybody was feeling like they had to do the job every week. We had a low-scoring game in Cleveland, a high-scoring game the other night (against Jacksonville). We had home games, road games, field goals at the end to win it. Everybody contributed. That was a great feeling."
Said Colts safety Bob Sanders, "I think just our last eight, nine games have really prepared us and gotten us ready. Just with the momentum we started, we wanted to get on a roll, because in the playoffs, you have to be ready. There are no excuses. You have to be ready to play.
"Everyone has to be on the same page. You can't have those mental errors, those breakdowns, you have to be ready. So just the way the season has gone has really prepared us to just be ready. We have to take it a week at a time now, take it a day at a time, get ready to prepare well every day at practice and practice well."
And if the last nine games haven't provided the Colts' most stress-free finish to a regular season in recent memory, Colts center Jeff Saturday agreed with Sanders and Dungy – that the nature of the streak may prove beneficial in the immediate future.
"I think it definitely does," Saturday said. "I think anytime you've had to win and the pressure has been on to win, guys realize you have to do it no matter how it comes – special teams, defense, offense – whoever has had to make the plays has been doing it for us.
"Hopefully, that will pay off in some tight games in the playoffs."