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Colts ready to face familiar foe, turn tables on Chargers

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts pride themselves on consistency.

But when they play San Diego, they usually look like somebody else. The scoring efficiency drops, the mistakes compound and the lapses have created some forgettable moments.

It's a trend Indy must change Sunday if it hopes to defend its Super Bowl title.

"I think they've definitely had our number the last couple of times we played them, but I don't think that will be the case Sunday," middle linebacker Gary Brackett said.

Of all the nondivision teams, other than New England, the Colts (13-3) may know the Chargers better than anybody. Sunday's divisional-round playoff game marks the fourth meeting between these teams since 2004, with San Diego holding a 2-1 edge.

And it doesn't take a genius to figure out a winning formula: Stop LaDainian Tomlinson, block Shawne Merriman and figure out how to make plays against San Diego's stingy defense.

Recently, the script has been problematic.

In December 2005, San Diego's last visit to the RCA Dome, the Colts were 13-0 and trying to maintain their quest for perfection. The Chargers (12-5) relentlessly pressured two-time league MVP Peyton Manning and used a long touchdown run from Michael Turner to seal a 26-17 victory.

Indy returned to San Diego in November, and the result was worse. Manning, nicknamed Perfect Peyton by former Chargers quarterback Ryan Leaf, threw a franchise-record six interceptions, Darren Sproles returned a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown in the first quarter and Mr. Clutch, Adam Vinatieri, pushed a 29-yard field goal wide right with 1:31 left. San Diego 23, Indy 21.

Of course, one reason for the Colts' poor play two months ago was because they weren't themselves. Receivers Marvin Harrison and Anthony Gonzalez, tight end Dallas Clark, left tackle Tony Ugoh and linebackers Freddy Keiaho and Tyjuan Hagler were all out with injuries.

Indy also lost three-time Pro Bowl defensive end Dwight Freeney and right tackle Ryan Diem during the game because of injuries. All but Freeney, who is on injured reserve after having foot surgery, are expected to play on Sunday.

But the Colts understand that having a full cast does not necessarily mean they'll be heading to their third AFC championship game since 2003.

"Not at all," Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday said when asked if injuries alone explained the loss. "Look we turned the ball over, we gave up touchdowns on special teams, we gave up a lot of things that game. We've got to play better than that this week."

What's the problem?

Some contend that Indy struggles against 3-4 defenses, which the Chargers use heavily. The track record against other 3-4 teams, such as New England and Pittsburgh, adds credibility to the premise.

The Patriots and Steelers eliminated Indy from the playoffs in 2003, 2004 and 2005, and the Colts have lost 10 of their past 11 against the Steelers and are 3-5 against the Pats since Tony Dungy arrived in 2002.

Dungy, however, does not believe its merely the defensive front that causes problems.

"I don't know that we've had trouble with the 3-4, we've had trouble with teams that play the 3-4 who have good players and can have four guys come in at any time without having to blitz and still be in man coverage," Dungy said. "There are a lot of variations of it, and it can cause you problems."

Which is one reason the Colts spent part of their bye week cramming.

Dungy wanted his team to focus on basics last week without wasting time preparing for three possible opponents, but made part of the lesson a refresher course on the basics of playing the 3-4.

"If you look at the teams we've lost to in the past, some of them have been 3-4 teams, and they aren't going to change when they come in here," Saturday said. "But I always think it's the personnel and we know them pretty well."

The extra time may help them contend with more than just Merriman and Shaun Phillips, too, because a win could set up a rematch with New England.

But given the matchups, and the Colts' recent struggles against San Diego, Indy knows it will require more than a little fine-tuning to get ready this week.

"We played poorly in all phases the last game and we fought in the second half," Brackett said. "If it proved anything, it's that we have to start fast and that's what we want to do Sunday."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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