Not perfect anymore

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:35 AM ET

The licking barely was over and the absurd rationalizing had begun: Maybe losing to the San Diego Chargers was the best thing that could have happened to the Indianapolis Colts.

Or maybe not.

Thankfully the two most prominent principals on the Colts -- quarterback Peyton Manning and coach Tony Dungy -- weren't singing that tune. To their credit, both acknowledged that the players wanted to go undefeated and that the loss stung.

Forget about the pressure that was building by the week. Taking the cue from their coach and quarterback, the Colts were loose and loving it.

While losing wasn't the worst thing that could have happened -- losing and having Manning get hurt would have taken that cake -- it is bad enough.

Sometime in the next four weeks, the Colts need to gargle the taste from Sunday from their mouths. They'll have to do it in two meaningless games, at Seattle and at home to Arizona -- where there will be no incentive to crank it up.

The Colts also will need reassurance that the offence can function even when an opposing defence brings the heat on Manning like the Chargers did so successfully.

They also realize that teams they face from here on in will attempt to do just what the Chargers did.

But here's where things get most interesting. If the remainder of the season and the wildcard round of the AFC playdowns shake down according to form check this out:

The Colts' first post-season date could be against the New England Patriots.

The same Patriots who knocked them out of the past two playoffs. The same two-time defending champions who are getting healthier by the down. And the same Patriots who have Tom Brady, who played as good a game as he had in his career in a 28-0 thrashing of the Tampa Bay Bucs on Saturday.

The Colts still are the team to beat and would shock no one if they Manning wins his first Super Bowl. But the AFC playoffs will be a treat to watch and torture to win.

The Cincinnati Bengals and the Patriots will be legitimate threats as will whoever comes out of the AFC West. Fortunately for the Colts, it's going to be a tough road for the Chargers, arguably the second-best team in the conference right now.

A Colts win would have all but eliminated the Chargers, perhaps the biggest reason why the loss wasn't the "best" thing that could have happened.

SON OF A BUM

Buffalo fans don't want to hear this given the pathetic state of their team. But former Bills coach Wade Phillips gets a good chunk of credit for the Chargers win.

The Chargers defensive coordinator, long thought of as one of the best defensive coaches in the league, was the man who put together the game plan to harass Manning.

San Diego general manager A.J. Smith, a former assistant to the late John Butler in Buffalo, also gets a nod. Smith drafted linebacker Shawne Merriman, who led the chase of Manning all game, in the first round of the 2005 draft.

MANNING BOWL

Other than Seattle, is there any team in the NFC that looks like even a fringe Super Bowl contender?

That being the case, suddenly the prospect of a Manning Bowl -- Eli of the New York Giants vs. Peyton's Colts -- doesn't seem like the biggest long shot going.

Archie Manning, sire of the two quarterback stars, would love to see it but would be loathe to pick sides.

"I can tell you one thing, if that happens you won't find me anywhere," said Archie Manning, who was holding court outside the Colts locker room on Sunday. "Don't come early (to Detroit) just hoping to see me."

QUOTABLE

"Close is only good enough in horseshoes. And not the kind they have on the sides of their helmet."

-- Former Miami Dolphins running back Mercury Morris on the end of the Colts bid for a perfect season.


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