Tuesday, June 26, 2007 | NFL mini-camps and off-season programs have wrapped up until training camps open a month from now. Soon we’ll be inundated with NFL preseason predictions.

Here’s something to consider if you’re among those “football experts” who say the Chargers wasted their Super Bowl opportunity in 2006 when the team went 14-2 in the regular season yet lost its first playoff game despite homefield advantage throughout the AFC tournament.

In 2004, the Pittsburgh Steelers finished the regular season at 15-1, and after suffering an upset loss in the playoffs despite homefield advantage, popular opinion was they let their window to the Super Bowl slam shut.

The next year the Steelers barely made the playoffs as a wildcard team, but they went undefeated in the post-season en route to a Super Bowl title.

In 2005, the Indianapolis Colts went 14-2, but they were upset in the playoffs despite homefield advantage. Again, popular opinion was that their window to the Super Bowl had closed.

The next year, the Colts lost four of their last seven games entering the playoffs and were seeded only No.3 in the AFC tournament. But just like the Steelers, they went on to win the Super Bowl.

And that brings us to the Chargers.

Does recent history with the Steelers and Colts tell us anything about the Chargers in 2007? Not really, but it does show us that the NFL regular season and the NFL playoffs are two different worlds.

And that brings me to Freddy Keiaho, the Indianapolis Colts linebacker from San Diego State. He was a rookie in 2006 that came away from his first NFL season with a Super Bowl title despite never playing in a college bowl game.

That’s the irony of football and sports in general. A team’s regular season record tells us everything and nothing about what will happen in the playoffs, and a player’s college history in the win-loss column can do a 180-degree in the pros.

Keiaho says the feeling that the Colts wasted their Super Bowl opportunity in 2005 never permeated the locker room. He heard that message early as a wide-eyed rookie from veteran center Jeff Saturday.

“Jeff Saturday told the team, ‘This is our time,’” Keahio said. “That was the feeling of the team all year. There was never a feeling that we missed our opportunity. We were confident we could win the Super Bowl.”

Keiaho said that same message was absorbed from head coach Tony Dungy. The Colts didn’t let their 3-4 skid shake their confidence.

“He told us the regular season is when you earn your pay and the playoffs is when you have fun,” Keiaho said. “He is such a great coach to be around. He’s always so calm.”

Dungy repeated his message when the Patriots took a 21-3 lead in the second quarter of the AFC Championship game.

“When we were down against New England, he said we were going to go down and score, stop them on defense, score again and win the game,” Keiaho said. “That’s what we did. We were very patient.”

This season Keiaho, a 5-foot-11-inch, 226-pound backup linebacker and special teams star, has a chance to move into the starting lineup. He jumped up on the depth chart at outside linebacker when Cato June left the Colts to sign a free-agent deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Keiaho’s strong rookie year also came despite a setback. He was injured in the preseason and missed six games before he cracked the lineup.

“Being a third-round draft pick, I was confident I could contribute right away,” he said. “They wouldn’t draft me that high if they didn’t think I could play in the NFL. I had a good season, and the coaches said they liked what they saw from me. (Starting linebacker) Gary Brackett is the team captain, and he took me under his wing.”

Keiaho made the leap to the NFL despite starting only one year with the Aztecs. He came to SDSU as a running back, but once he shifted to linebacker, he was behind Kirk Morrison, now with the Oakland Raiders, until getting his chance to start as a senior in 2005.

He credited linebackers coach Andy Buh, who is now on Stanford’s staff. Buh was hired this year by new Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, the former University of San Diego coach.

“Andy Buh is the reason I’m in the NFL,” Keiaho said. “First of all, he’s a great football coach. He did a great job with all the linebackers at San Diego State. But he’s also the reason I switched from running back to linebacker. He saw it as my future.”

But what no one knew — not Buh nor any of the “football experts” — was that the Steelers and Colts would bounce back from their disappointing seasons to win that elusive Super Bowl title.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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