Peyton Manning and his Colts are traversing unfamiliar territory this postseason.
After five straight years as AFC South Division champions, they head into Saturday's opener in San Diego as a wild card. But big brother Peyton believes he and his team can learn a lesson from little brother Eli and the Giants, who won Super Bowl XLII last season after qualifying as a wild card.
"I think you certainly can," the Colts quarterback told reporters in Indianapolis this week. "I think it's been proven the last three years that your seed and where you're playing really does not matter. It's who's playing the best football in the month of January that's going to have the best chance to advance."
The Giants and then-unproven quarterback Eli Manning finished the 2007 regular season with a relatively humdrum 10-6 record. But they hit their stride in January, going on the road to beat the Bucs 24-14, Cowboys 21-17 and Packers 23-20 then stunning the unbeaten Patriots 17-14 for the title.
By comparison, the Colts enter postseason play already in high gear, having won nine straight after a 3-4 start.
"Now that we're here, it's really anybody's to take," Manning said. "I think across the board in the AFC, you have six teams that are playing really well right now."
Five teams have won the Super Bowl as wild cards, including the Steelers when they beat the Seahawks 21-10 in February 2006.
A season later, the Colts won their division at 12-4, had to survive a 13-3 Ravens team in Baltimore and overcome a 21-3 deficit to the Patriots in the AFC title game for a thrilling 38-34 win. That catapulted them into Super Bowl XLI, where they defeated the Bears 29-17.
Of course, the Colts didn't look as if they'd even make the playoffs seven games into this season. Manning was still feeling the effects of an infected left knee that required two offseason surgeries and forced him to miss most of training camp. He struggled with his balance and delivery, and his struggles were mirrored by the team's uneven performances.
"It's been different," Manning said. "It's not something that I want to go through again. I have a whole new respect level for guys like (Cincinnati quarterback) Carson Palmer that have recovered from ACL injuries and what (New England quarterback Tom Brady) is going through and the many players that have had major injuries and rehab.
"Mine in no way compares to major ACL surgery. But just the little time with the trainers and the rehab, it just gives you a whole new respect for guys that have been able to come back from injuries."
The Colts' low point came in a 31-21 loss to eventual division winner Tennessee on Oct. 27, but they haven't lost since.
"There was no team meeting or players-only meeting that you hear about," Manning said.
"Those are scary, by the way. We don't have any of those around here. There was no great speech by Coach (Tony) Dungy."
So what turned it around?
"It was just trying to keep doing the things that you've always done, just try to do them a little bit better," Manning said.
"Do your fundamentals. Do your quarterback drills. Try to take care of your job and do your job better. I certainly wanted to start playing better football, but everybody did."
Dave Scheiber can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8541.