AFC playoff preview: Colts capable of traveling long road to Tampa

So what if the Indianapolis Colts didn't win their seventh consecutive AFC South title.

So what if the Colts had a stretch early in the season when they looked as if they didn't even deserve to make the playoffs.

Watch out, AFC. Watch out, NFC, too.

NFC wild-card breakdown

The final Sunday of the regular season saw some teams rise to the occasion while others cracked under the pressure. Now that the NFC field is set, Steve Wyche takes a look at the matchups.

The Colts are preparing to embark on a postseason journey that could very easily take them all the way to their second Super Bowl in three seasons.

As the fifth-seeded team in the AFC, the Colts need to travel the long route of a wild-card team, beginning Saturday night at San Diego. Third-seeded Miami hosts sixth-seeded Baltimore on Sunday. The top two seeds, Tennessee and Pittsburgh, have a first-round bye.

Despite having to travel far and play an extra game, the Colts have the necessary ingredients for a deep run. The most important, of course, is the man primarily responsible for their consistently ranking as a contender in this decade: Peyton Manning. By leading the Colts on a nine-game winning streak and playing some of the best football of his career, Manning has made the strongest case to become the league's Most Valuable Player.

Even in his brief showing in Sunday's 23-0 season-ending victory over the Titans, with nothing at stake for either team, Manning was impressive. He completed all seven of the passes he attempted for 95 yards and the Colts' only offensive touchdown, a 55-yard hookup with running back Joseph Addai.

At 12-4, the Colts finished with one of the best records in the league. It wasn't enough to overtake the 13-3 Titans and, with the Titans and Colts resting starters Sunday, it's hard to point to that game as giving Indianapolis any sort of specific edge over Tennessee.

However, the Colts do have momentum in their favor. They also have considerable postseason experience, more than most teams in the entire tournament.

Here's a closer look at the matchups:

No. 5 Indianapolis (12-4) at No. 4 San Diego (8-8)

Colts: After his ninth 4,000-yard passing season and likely winning his third league MVP honor, Manning gets another chance to show that he has what it takes to deliver in the postseason. He did it once, guiding the Colts to victory over Chicago in Super Bowl XLI and becoming the game's MVP, but that was with a stronger supporting cast. This year, Manning has been carrying a team that struggles to run the ball and is inconsistent on defense. ... Will this be Tony Dungy's final season? The Colts' coach has an exit plan, and another Super Bowl victory would be the perfect time to walk away. He might decide to call it quits regardless of when his team's season ends in the postseason.

Chargers: Perhaps owning the league's highest quarterback rating wasn't enough to get Philip Rivers into the Pro Bowl, but it was good enough to get him and the Chargers in the playoffs. You know he will be playing with a chip on his shoulder pad. ... In some circles, Norv Turner was thought to be in danger of losing his job. There is no denying that the Chargers were a disappointment. Many prognosticators had them easily winning the AFC West and finishing with one of the best records in the league. The fact they beat Denver in the regular-season finale to win the division with an 8-8 record suggests they might not belong in the postseason, but their offense has gotten red-hot at the perfect time. ... There was plenty of talk during the season that LaDainian Tomlinson has lost a step, but there are plenty of defenders in the league (including those who play for the Broncos) who would beg to differ. Of course, it remains to be seen what Tomlinson's status for the game will be after suffering what appeared to be a groin-muscle injury against Denver.

Matchups to watch

» Manning vs. Rivers: This has the makings of an explosive, high-scoring game. Both quarterbacks are red-hot and should be able to pile up plenty of yards and points against defenses that are capable of allowing big plays.

» Manning vs. Chargers' pass rush: The Colts are likely to have the bulk of their offensive success taking advantage of San Diego's blitz-happy defense. Manning is the best in the league at anticipating the blitz, and he has excellent pass-catchers -- especially tight end Dallas Clark -- who knows how to adjust accordingly. San Diego's defense continues to have a nasty habit of letting up after the team builds a comfortable lead. That could spell their demise against the highly dangerous Indianapolis offense.

» Chargers running backs vs. Colts' defensive front: The Chargers figure to be effective by employing a spread offense that should help open some running lanes for Tomlinson and ultra-fast Darren Sproles to exploit in the Colts' defensive front, which doesn't have a whole lot of size. If Tomlinson is hurting, then the Chargers will rely heavily on Sproles, but it could be too much to ask him to carry the bulk of the rushing load.

No. 6 Baltimore (11-5) at No. 3 Miami (11-5)

Ravens: They are one of three incredible turnaround stories found in the posteason. And, like the Dolphins and Falcons, they have a rookie coach: John Harbaugh. Harbaugh has received high marks for keeping his team focused on each game rather than being distracted by the bigger picture. But is he up to the task of leading a team to a road victory in the playoffs? ... Like the Falcons, the Ravens also have a rookie quarterback: Joe Flacco. Flacco has received high marks for showing incredible poise and a veteran-like sense of operating an offense that emphasizes the run. But is he up to the task of leading a team to a road win in the postseason? ... Will Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan be able to enhance his resume to fill one of the head-coaching openings that should open soon?

Dolphins: To go from 1-15 to an 11-5 division championship one year later is nothing short of miraculous. Chalk up another one for master rebuilder Bill Parcells, the Dolphins' executive vice president of football operations. And to make that 10-game improvement (which ties the 1999 Colts for the greatest in NFL history) with a rookie coach, Tony Sparano, makes it even harder to fathom. Are the postseason stakes going to be too much for Sparano to handle? ... Chad Pennington's career revival continues. He got sweet revenge by leading the Dolphins to victory against his former team, the Jets, to seal the AFC East crown. But Pennington would hardly be satisfied if Miami's season were to end a week later.

Matchups to watch

» Ravens defense vs. the "Wildcat": When the teams met Oct. 19 in Miami, the Ravens rendered the "Wildcat" ineffective on the way to a 27-13 victory. With the NFL's second-ranked defense entering Week 17, the Ravens have a key ingredient to succeed in the postseason. They are fast, physical, and extremely talented. And that could pose some serious problems for the Dolphins' offense. Miami continues to rely on its "Wildcat" formation (with running back Ronnie Brown taking direct snaps) to get its ground game going, but the Ravens seem too smart and stout in their front seven to be fooled or overpowered by such gadget strategy.

» Flacco vs. Dolphins defense: Although Flacco threw the ball well in the Ravens' playoff-clinching victory over Jacksonville Sunday, he has looked a little more like a rookie passer lately. He has made more errant throws than he did earlier in the season and has been a little cautious at times. The Dolphins' 3-4 defense will look to confuse him by disguising and mixing up coverages.

» Ravens running backs vs. Dolphins run defense: The Ravens need to help their rookie quarterback's confidence by pounding the ball as they have been lately with the combination of La'Ron McClain and Willis McGahee. The Dolphins give up 101.2 rushing yards per game, while the Ravens are rushing for 148.5 yards per game.

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