THE TIME IS NOW

The NFL's past three Super Bowl champions have been seeded sixth, third and fifth, respectively, entering the postseason. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said that's evidence enough that a team's playoff positioning - and where a team is playing - doesn't much matter.

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Recent Past Proves Playoff Seed Means Nothing, Manning Says
INDIANAPOLIS – The recent past is Peyton Manning's evidence.

Manning, the Colts' nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback, knows from personal experience that a postseason seed – while not unimant, exactly – only means so much. He knows this from the experience of others, too.

Six. Three. Five.

Those were the playoff seedings of the past three Super Bowl champions – the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers, the 2006 Colts and the 2007 New York Giants – which Manning said makes the message for the fifth-seeded Colts this week fairly clear.

Yes, playoff seedings are nice.

And a low one might make the Super Bowl path more familiar.

But they're no guarantee of success.

"Your seed and where you're playing really does not matter," Manning said 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.

"It's who is playing the best football in the month of January is the team that's going to have the best chance to advance. Your goal is to try to win the division, get the best record, have the bye and get the homefield. That's what you want. That's your job to have that goal.

"But now that we're here, it's kind of anybody's to take."

The Colts, who won nine consecutive games at season's end, qualified for the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season. Unlike the past five seasons, when the Colts won the AFC South title each season, the team qualified as a Wild Card.

That means no playoff opener at home.

It means that if the Colts continue to win, they would play at least two – and possibly three – road games to qualify for a second Super Bowl in three seasons.

And it means that despite finishing four games better than the Chargers, they will play on the road in San Diego Saturday rather than in Lucas Oil Stadium.

"We'll have our work cut out," Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said.

The Colts this season beat four of the five AFC playoff teams, beating sixth-seeded Baltimore (31-3) at Lucas Oil Stadium in October, winning at No. 2 seed Pittsburgh (24-20) in November, beating Tennessee (23-0) at home in the regular-season finale and winning in San Diego (23-20) on a 51-yard field goal by kicker Adam Vinatieri on the game's final play in late November.

"I told the team, 'Obviously, it's a lot tougher to go back a second time, and beat somebody at their place in a playoff atmosphere,''' Dungy said. "They're playing with confidence, so we're going to need to be ready, and I think we will be.

"I don't think, really, your momentum from the regular season (carries over). The playoffs are completely different. You're playing against good teams. Everybody you play is tough. You have to come out and win. What you did last week really isn't going to have a bearing on what you do this week.

"Hopefully, we can just go out there and get a postseason streak started."

The Colts' postseason will open against a team with a similar regular-season story. The Chargers, after winning the AFC West last season, trailed Denver by three games with three remaining. They won their last four games, becoming the only team in NFL history to overcome such a deficit.

They also became the first team since 1985 to win a division with a .500 record, and the first team in NFL history to make the playoffs after being 4-8.

The Colts' finish was nearly as dramatic. After starting 5-0, 13-0, 9-0 and 7-0 in 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2007, the Colts led the AFC South from start to finish in each of those seasons. In 2004, they started 4-3, but clinched the South with a week remaining.

This season, with Manning missing training camp and preseason with a knee injury, the Colts started 3-4 for the first time in a decade, and made the playoffs with a season-ending winning streak in which six of nine games were decided by a touchdown or less.

"How you got here, what you've done in the past – we all know it's pretty irrelevant," Manning said. "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?' "

The Colts have made the postseason every season since Dungy's 2002 arrival, with Saturday being their first first-round playoff game on the road since a 41-0 loss to the New York Jets following the 2002 regular season. That was the last time the Colts made the postseason as a Wild Card team.

They are 7-5 in the postseason under Dungy, and they have won two road playoff games – at Kansas City (38-31) in an AFC Divisional Playoff game following the 2003 season and at Baltimore (15-6) in an AFC Divisional Playoff game following the 2006 season.

The Chargers, like the Colts, have been one of the AFC's elite teams the past half decade, winning the AFC West four of the past five seasons and the last three in succession. The teams have played five times since 2004, with the Chargers winning three of the five meetings.

Saturday's game will be their fourth meeting since November 2007, with San Diego winning 23-21 in San Diego in November of 2007, and 28-24 in an AFC Divisional Playoff game in Indianapolis in January.

The only non-AFC South team the Colts have played more in Dungy's seven seasons is the New England Patriots.

"It's almost like a division game," Manning said. "You're playing them twice a year and you're definitely seeing them once a year. There's a lot of familiarity among the players. There's always going to be changes in schemes each time you play, wrinkles here and there, but you do know the players. I know how good a team they are and I know the problems they can cause. . . .

"These are the games you want to play in. There are more things going on during the week and it's only one of a couple of games being played, but once the game actually starts, it still is football. You like to be playing in these types of games. It will be a great atmosphere on Saturday night. It really ought to be a great ball game.

"As a football player, you feel fortunate to play in these types of games."

Manning, the NFL's co-Most Valuable Player in 2003 and the MVP in 2004, in the last nine games has emerged as a leading candidate for the award this season.

After throwing 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions in the first seven games of the season, Manning has thrown 17 and three in the last nine games, and for the season, he has completed 371 of 555 passes for 4,002 yards and 27 touchdowns with 12 interceptions.

In December, he completed 90 of 110 passes for 1,050 yards and eight touchdown passes with no interceptions. He had passer ratings of 134.0, 110.0, 140.7 and 158.3 in the games.

Only one other player, Brett Favre (1995-1997), has been named MVP three times.

"It would be part of a team thing," Manning said. "I know it's an individual award, but it would truly be in my opinion a team award. In football terms, we have been through some things this year. For us on offense, me not being as comfortable as I wanted to be early in the season, then all of a sudden, I sort of lose my biggest security blanket in my center, Jeff Saturday (who missed two games early with a knee injury).

"That was a pretty good 1-2 punch to start the season. The fact that we've kind of persevered through some of these things and kind of put ourselves in a place here in the postseason has been the most rewarding regular season that I've been a part of in my 11 years.

"I have to believe a lot of the other players and coaches feel the same way. It'd be a nice thing on behalf of the team. I really felt that way."

Far more on Manning's mind Tuesday was preparing for his ninth playoff appearance in 10 seasons, an appearance the Colts will make with their lowest seeding in six seasons. Still, Manning – the Most Valuable Player of the Super Bowl following the 2006 season – said seeding is unimportant compared to the competition this season in a competitive AFC.

"I think across the board in the AFC, you have six teams that are playing really well right now," Manning said. "It's wide open. It's who's going to be able to make the most plays that will have a chance to go advance."

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