INDIANAPOLIS -- San Diego likes the AFC's new championship model. At least this year.
It watched Pittsburgh squander the AFC's No. 1 seed in 2004, only to win a Super Bowl title the next year, and the 2005 Indianapolis Colts blow the No. 1 seed only to rebound with their own Super Bowl title last year.
Now it's San Diego's turn.
Written off after a sluggish start, a coaching change and a deflating home loss in last year's divisional round, the Chargers -- last year's top AFC team -- have themselves in position to continue that trend if they can dethrone the defending Super Bowl champs today.
"I think subconsciously we know teams have gotten there from this position, and that helps," coach Norv Turner said. "But we're playing one of the two best teams in football, so what we've got to do is play our best."
For the Chargers (12-5), this season has been defined by one motto: Win in the playoffs.
Everything they did, from firing Marty Schottenheimer to hiring Turner, from building momentum over the second half of the season to forgetting about past postseason failures, was intended to change their playoff history.
So far, so good.
San Diego finally ended its 13-year playoff drought last week by beating Tennessee, a win it needed every bit as much for a confidence boost as it did to advance.
Yet the tougher task still lies ahead.
The Chargers face a Colts squad that hopes to get eight-time Pro Bowl receiver Marvin Harrison back in the lineup, is coming off a week in which safety Bob Sanders was named the NFL defensive player of the year, and wants to close out the RCA Dome era with another playoff win.
And that's not even looking ahead to next week's championship game at still-perfect New England, a 31-20 winner over Jacksonville on Saturday.
"In my mind a lot of teams do that (have playoff failures)," 2006 MVP LaDainian Tomlinson said. "A lot of teams have to go through a lot of failures and disappointments before they get over the hump."
Perhaps no team understands the Chargers' plight better than the Colts (13-3), who were criticized for years because they couldn't win in the playoffs,then were criticized when they did win for failing to reach the Super Bowl.
The most disheartening moment came in 2005 when the Colts watched their seemingly perfect setup vanish the moment Mike Vanderjagt's field goal in the final minute against Pittsburgh sailed wide right.
Coach Tony Dungy used that loss to keep his players motivated for making another run, much the same way the Chargers used last year's defeat to New England.
"I think you do get a certain kind of resolve when you don't finish the year the way you want to," Dungy said. "But every year is different, every team is different, every group of guys is different."
Like the '05 Steelers, the Chargers find themselves underdogs against a team they have been successful against.
They've won the last two games in the series, used that 3-4 defense to relentlessly harass two-time league MVP Peyton Manning and have held him to the lowest quarterback rating (71.3) of any defense he's played more than once.
San Diego also leads the league in takeaways (48), has the league rushing champ in Tomlinson and has won seven consecutive games.
"Everything's got to be firing right, we just can't be good on one side of the ball," defensive end Luis Castillo said. "This is too good a team. They're the world champions for a reason. ... We feel good, we feel confident."
The biggest question for San Diego is how quarterback Philip Rivers responds on the road. He's thrown 11 touchdowns and four interceptions during the winning streak, but has yet to face such a hostile environment in the playoffs and could be without tight end Antonio Gates. The Chargers' top receiver dislocated his left big toe last week.
For the first time in months, it appears the Colts will be at full strength.
Harrison's return would help Manning stretch the field and create mismatches, while the defense should be buoyed by the return of hard-hitting safety Antoine Bethea, speedy pass rusher Robert Mathis and their most consistent defensive tackle, Raheem Brock.
"Obviously, you want as many regular starters out there as possible in the playoffs," Manning said. "So we'll see what happens, but we have to realize that doesn't guarantee you anything."
As the Steelers found out in 2004, the Colts in 2005 and the Chargers in 2006.
"We used Pittsburgh as the example last year, so I'm sure San Diego is using us and Pittsburgh as the example this year," Colts center Jeff Saturday said. "But once you're in the playoffs, it's a different world."