These guys might as well be division rivals. Peyton Manning, voted NFL MVP for a record-tying third time, and his Indianapolis Colts face Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers for the fourth time in two seasons Saturday night.
Not only are the teams familiar with each other, they know all too well the consequences of facing off a second time - one team moves along in the playoffs and the other one goes home for the winter.
After fighting week-by-week to stay alive in the playoff chase, the Colts (12-4) and Chargers (8-8) should be acclimated to the pressure accompanying their wild-card showdown at Qualcomm Stadium.
"You've got two teams that have been in very similar situations, that we've essentially been playing elimination games these past five, six weeks," Manning said. "We didn't feel like we could afford to lose one because we felt like we would get behind, whether it was against New England or Baltimore, because we knew we were playing for the wild card."
The Colts' early struggles, due largely to Manning's knee problems, put them way behind the AFC South champion Tennessee Titans. But Indy more than took care of business by winning nine straight games to secure a wild-card spot while New England was shut out despite going 11-5.
The Colts' winning streak included a heartstopping 23-20 victory at San Diego on Nov. 23 on Adam Vinatieri's 51-yard field goal as time expired.
And the Bolts? After crashing to 4-8 and being written off in Norv Turner's second season as head coach, the Chargers climbed back into the race thanks to the weak AFC West. They won their last four games to clinch the division at .500. Among their December wins were a fourth-quarter comeback at doormat Kansas City, a stirring victory at Tampa Bay, and a 52-21 rout of the Broncos that contributed to Denver coach Mike Shanahan's surprise firing.
"Obviously San Diego was in the same boat," said Manning, whose team started 3-4. "They couldn't afford to lose one, because Denver would win the division. So there has been a lot of pressure in these last five, six weeks for both teams and it's nice to know you can kind of come through in those situations."
So here they are meeting again, 51 weeks after the Chargers kept the Colts from getting a shot at defending their Super Bowl title by knocking them off in Indy in the divisional round.
On the injury front, the Colts seem to be in better shape than the Chargers. San Diego stars LaDainian Tomlinson (groin) and Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates (ankle) were hurt in the Denver game. While Turner is optimistic they can play, it's anyone's guess how effective they'll be.
Tomlinson and Gates were listed as questionable on Friday's injury report, meaning they've got a 50-50 chance of playing.
That said, the Chargers still pulled off a 28-24 upset at Indy in last year's playoffs after Rivers and Tomlinson both went out with knee injuries.
"Maybe I was thinking too early, but I was thinking even going into the Denver game, 'Hey, we get through this one, this is as healthy as we've been in a while going into the playoffs,' Rivers said this week. "Obviously those two guys getting nicked up a little bit, I know they're both hopeful to play and play well. We certainly hope so too. Guys will step up as we did last year, as we did throughout this year. Guys will step up and we'll keep on going."
Even if Tomlinson and Gates are limited, Rivers - who had the NFL's best passer rating at 105.5 - has plenty of other teammates to get the ball to. There's first-time 1,000-yard wide receiver Vincent Jackson, a rediscovered Chris Chambers, and Malcom Floyd, who could return after missing two games with a collapsed lung. There's also speedy little running back Darren Sproles, who's a threat to go all the way every time he touches the ball.
The Colts will counter with a healthy strong safety Bob Sanders, last season's NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and a formidable defensive front that includes Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis and Raheem Brock.
Freeney, Mathis and Brock missed last year's playoff game against the Chargers due to injuries, and the Colts failed to get a sack.
Freeney (10 1/2 sacks) and Mathis (11 1/2) were selected for the Pro Bowl this season. Brock had 3 1/2 sacks and eight pressures.
"There's so many guys, you feel like they're coming from everywhere," Rivers said.
Rivers was the only QB this year with a passer rating above 100 and he tied former teammate Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints for most TD passes with 34. But he goes against a unit that allowed only six scoring throws, fewest ever in 16-game season.
Sanders missed the regular-season game between the teams with a knee injury.
"It's always a great game for us," Sanders said. "They're a physical team, we consider ourselves a physical team, and it's always a match."
Turner said Sanders' presence can have a big influence on a game.
"I'm not sure you can change a lot what you do because of him, but he makes them a lot better on defense," Turner said. "He's a playmaker and a very good tackler and he's a very experienced player, so I don't think you fool him very often."
Overall, this will be the sixth game between the Colts and Chargers in five seasons.
Sanders noted the similarities in the teams starting slow and gaining momentum.
"I think both teams kind of just realized, 'We have the personnel to get the job done.' It's just, when are you going to step up, when are you going to have guys make plays? We've had guys injured and guys stepped in on both teams and have been able to make plays for us and keep us rolling. That's all we want. We just want guys to continue to get better and grow, and I think they've had the same thing."
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