Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
SAN DIEGO -- Their faces blank, their steps a shuffle, the Indianapolis Colts trudged to their buses Saturday night. They were still digesting another too-early exit from the playoffs. They still were coming to terms with how a 23-17 overtime loss to the host San Diego Chargers meant another round of questions about why they aren't going where they believe they belong.
"I've played 10 years man, it's only ended good once," center Jeff Saturday said, referring to Super Bowl XLI at the end of the 2006 season. "It's awful. What are you going to say? How do you make that finish good? You come out with full expectations to beat this team and play bad. That sums it up."
The Colts of president Bill Polian and quarterback Peyton Manning will always have that one Lombardi Trophy, but they now own a 7-8 record in the playoffs. Tony Dungy, who joined the Colts a bit later, is 7-6 in the postseason with a horseshoe on his hat.
Polian bristled at a question about the overall body of playoff work.
"I'm not interested in bodies of work or underachieving or any of that," he said. "That's your guys' stuff, that has nothing to do with me. I'm not even going to deal with that.
"You've got to be pretty good to get here, and it's about matchups. And this is a tough team to matchup against so we have some work to do in that regard. We know what we have to do. Nobody underachieved on this team this year, I can assure you of that. Absolutely no one."
Individually, perhaps not. Collectively on this day, however, it certainly seems fair to suggest that the only team in the history of the league to win 12 or more games in six consecutive seasons, the only coach to go to the playoffs for 10 consecutive years and a club that carried a league best nine-game winning streak into this postseason should have been able to do more.
"We were a confident team, we figured we were going to pull it out," safety Antoine Bethea said. "We had a lot of close games, we pulled them out. We figured we were going to do the same this game."
The play the Colts pointed to as their undoing wasn't a drive-extending defensive holding against cornerback Tim Jennings in overtime or the 22-yard game-winning touchdown run by Darren Sproles three plays later. It was a failed third down by the offense.
Pinned deep in their own end by a perfect Mike Scifres punt, the Colts had a three-point lead and the ball on the final play before the two-minute warning of regulation, facing a third-and-2 from their own 9-yard line.
Get those two yards and a first down, and the Colts keep possession. Get that first down and the Chargers are out of timeouts and the Colts are milking away the final seconds of a win. Get that first down and the Colts are wondering if Sunday's wild-card playoff results would send them to Nashville or Pittsburgh for a divisional round game next weekend.
Instead linebacker Tim Dobbins burst through the line and smothered Manning for an eight-yard sack and forced the Colts to punt.
"When we've got the ball and we've got to make a first down to ice the game, we weren't able to do it," Dungy said. "We were trying to make a first down. We know if we make one first down, the game is over. We had a quick pass and we didn't get it off."
"I'm not going to get into the specific plays," Manning said. "Just the Chargers made a good play on that and obviously it was disappointing that we weren't able to convert that third down."
The Chargers drove to a game-tying 26-yard field goal. They quashed any chance the Colts had at driving to a field goal with only 24 seconds to work with. The Chargers won the overtime coin toss and moved 75 yards to the touchdown that rocked Qualcomm Stadium more than the pregame military flyover.
While Sproles was fantastic on offense, the running back and return man was outdone on special teams by Scifres, who averaged a net of 51.7 yards on six punts that placed the Colts, in order, at their 10, 19, 3, 7, 9 and 1 to start on offense.
"Their punter, that guy is unbelievable," Saturday said. "He gets five game balls. They put us inside the 10 at least three or four times, inside the five once or twice. That's a long way to tote it against any defense."
Polian called it a "Hall of Fame game" for Scifres.
The best NFL teams make the most of sudden change plays, a turnover that flips field position, a call that goes in their favor.
But the sudden change the Colts were coming to terms with is the sort they have no interest in getting good at, the kind where, in a flash, the season shifts to offseason.
"It's a new season now, so you lose, you go home and we lost," Bethea said. "The nine-game win streak, it was good the way we ended the [regular] season. But you lose and you go home."
Minutes later, Bethea fell in line with some of his teammates, starting that journey home with a walk down a dim, narrow hallway, where wheels on equipment carts rattled on a dimpled floor, creating white noise into which a season of promise could fade.