Offensive struggles, secondary breakdowns hurt Colts

INDIANAPOLIS -- Now that they can't win 'em all, the result of a self-destructive loss Sunday in Week 15, the Indianapolis Colts can focus again on winning it all.

At least that was the motivational mantra often repeated by disappointed Colts veterans after their 26-17 loss to the San Diego Chargers, a defeat that not only ended the bid for an unprecedented 16-0 regular season, but which figures to provide Indianapolis players and coaches considerable room for improvement before the playoffs commence.

"It's been so long since we've lost," said Colts free safety Bob Sanders, "that you almost forget what it feels like, you know? Not that we felt [invincible] or anything. But we expect to win every week. And today was like a slap in our faces. It was hard reality. But I know this: It will make this team a lot hungrier."

There was, to the Colts' credit, a notable dearth of rationalization in their locker room. It wasn't as if players were going out of their way to remind everyone that the goal established back in training camp, as coach Tony Dungy had hammered home in recent weeks, was a Super Bowl title and not an unblemished record. But Colts did note that, just because the loss column finally absorbed a dent, doesn't mean their Super Bowl aspirations took a severe hit.

"It was a fun streak," Dungy said, "and no one wanted it to end. Our guys wanted to stay undefeated and go 16-0. But that's not what we talked about in camp. We talked about [winning] a Super Bowl. And that's still out there for us."

In fact, if there was a theme to the Indianapolis post-mortems, it was that the Colts were more disappointed in the way they played than in the outcome. This is an outfit that, from top to bottom, has embraced Dungy's credo that you've got to improve every week. On Sunday, in losing to a Chargers team that might be the best five-loss franchise the NFL has seen in some time, Indianapolis displayed far too much slippage. It was a step back in the process, a speed bump for momentum, and now the Colts must regroup and recover, not so much from a defeat as from an across-the-boards dropoff.

The loss likely won't alter Dungy's plans to play his reserves more liberally in these final two games of the season -- Saturday at Seattle and then against Arizona in the RCA Dome on New Year's Day -- but it did supply the Colts plenty of elements on which to work as they prepare for the playoffs.

For openers, players won't get the Monday off-day that Dungy had granted them the last two years as a late-season bonus following victories after Nov. 1, meaning they will report to work in the morning and begin poring over tape of a mistake-laden performance. Given the volume of atypical mistakes, both mental and physical, the review sessions could be lengthy ones.

It would be hyperbole to describe Indianapolis, which had already secured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, as being in a back-to-the-drawing-board mode. But the Colts, most notably Dungy and quarterback Peyton Manning, expound often on the virtues of precision, execution and sharpness.

In virtually every facet of the game, the Colts lacked all those elements. So while no one will scramble back to the drawing board, one can bet that Dungy, an old Chuck Noll disciple, will revert to what his mentor always did following slippages of such consequence, and that means getting back to fundamentals.

"This is certainly something you need to respond to," acknowledged Manning, who threw for 336 yards but was harassed all afternoon and sacked four times, the most he has been taken down since a comeback win over the Chargers last Dec. 26, when he was also sacked four times. "A loss always leaves a bitter taste in your mouth and, if you have any kind of pride, you can't wait to get rid of it. First and foremost, San Diego beat us, played a much better game than we did, so give them credit. But we didn't play well for most of the game. It was a game where we didn't get better and that's what bothers you. In fact, I think that bothers you even more than the loss does."

Give the Colts, who rallied from a 16-0 third-quarter deficit to grab a one-point lead late in the same stanza, high grades for pluckiness. For a franchise that has yet to win a Super Bowl title since relocating here from Baltimore in 1984, the Colts played with the heart of a champion, rallying to score two touchdowns in a lightning stretch of 3:02 to grab a 17-16 lead. Both touchdowns came following takeaways, the first after an interception by mighty mite middle linebacker Gary Brackett, the second after defensive end Dwight Freeney sacked Chargers quarterback Drew Brees and stripped him of the ball.

Whether the Colts actually become champions now -- and Indianapolis, even after Sunday's loss, remains the favorite for the Vince Lombardi Trophy -- remains to be seen. And the team's ability to get to Detroit might well depend on how well it rectifies the myriad miscues of Sunday between now and the playoffs.

Certainly there is, even for a team as good as the Colts, plenty to address. And that's what was so disturbing to players and coaches as they left the locker room.

"Take nothing away from the Chargers," defensive coordinator Ron Meeks said, "but we didn't play well. It's never fun to lose. It's even worse when you make as many mistakes as we did. We did things we really haven't done in a long time. Mistakes, way too many mistakes, and that is what hurts more than anything."

Offensively, the Colts struggled to move the ball consistently and didn't find any kind of rhythm until late in the second quarter. For the second year in a row, the 3-4 front of San Diego defensive coordinator Wade Phillips exerted withering pressure from the edges, and Manning was rarely able to set his feet. Last year, it was linebacker Steve Foley who tormented Manning, but on Sunday rookie Shawne Merriman kept getting into the backfield and registered two of the Chargers' sacks.

The Colts played much of the game without right tackle Ryan Diem, who has struggled the past two weeks; he left the game with a sprained medial collateral ligament in the first quarter. His absence forced Indianapolis to move right guard Jake Scott outside to tackle and to play rookie Dylan Gandy at guard. It might not have mattered who the Colts called on to try to block, though, since the Chargers shut down the running game and forced Indianapolis to become one-dimensional.

Indianapolis eked out just 24 rushing yards, a season low, and that permitted San Diego's front to attack the pocket. That ability to rush Manning forced one of the biggest plays of the game. With the Colts trailing 19-17 but driving for a potential game-winning score, Manning was rushed so hard on second-and-9 at the San Diego 23 that he threw the ball away and was flagged for intentional grounding (a 12-yard penalty). On the ensuing play, he was sacked for a three-yard loss that took the Colts out of field-goal range.

Earlier in the game, the Colts had squandered a scoring opportunity on fourth-and-goal from the 1 when a Manning bootleg was stuffed.

"I probably made a mistake there by not kicking [a field goal]," said Dungy, who doesn't often second-guess himself. "I cost us points. And who knows what might have happened if we'd gotten [some points] there. You never know."

Truth be told, it might not have mattered, since the Indianapolis defense had far too many transgressions to overcome the two takeaways that set up touchdowns.

In the first quarter, the Chargers scored on a 29-yard touchdown pass to venerable wide receiver Keenan McCardell when Indianapolis was in a Cover 3 zone and a safety slid too far outside. That allowed McCardell to get free up the left seam and easily beat the Colts secondary.

McCardell later burned the Colts for what was arguably the biggest play of the game.

With the Colts leading 17-16 and San Diego backed to its own 9-yard line after a three-possession stretch in which theoffense had turned the ball over twice and punted, the Chargers faced a third-and-9. Brees was rushed from the inside on the play, bought himself some time by sliding around, and then found McCardell deep behind the Colts' Cover 2 zone for a 54-yard completion. The play set up a 49-yard field goal by Nate Kaeding that nudged the Chargers back into the lead.

On the play, Sanders seemed to peek too long into the San Diego backfield, and then he and cornerback Jason David simply quit running, allowing McCardell to get behind them.

"I actually thought [Brees] was sacked, but that's no excuse," Sanders said. "I just kind of stopped. He froze me up. I'm in a Cover 2 there, and it's something we play almost all the time in those kinds of situations. But this time, I didn't play it very well, plain and simple, and it cost us big. It was a big blow, no doubt about it, man."

The final blow to Indianapolis' streak came on the Chargers' ensuing offensive series as reserve tailback Michael Turner burst through the right side and raced 83 yards to score on a second-and-13 play, with the Colts trying to stop the run and regain possession for a final shot at victory. On the long run, Sanders was influenced to the inside by motion from tight end Antonio Gates. He got stuck inside and Chargers right tackle Shane Olivea buried a linebacker. There was no one to contain Turner as he burst through the hole, got to the right sideline untouched, and scored easily.

It was the final glaring error on an afternoon filled with uncharacteristic mistakes. It meant the end of the Colts' dreams for an undefeated season, not the end of their Super Bowl aspirations, and the beginning of some introspection and hard work.

"A game like this, you've got to go back and examine and then re-examine, see where it went wrong, and then do the things necessary to make it right," weak-side linebacker Cato June said. "We all know we made mistakes and we know they will all be brought to our attention. And believe me, I know this team, and I know it will pay attention and do the things that have to be done. This is the end of the streak, yeah, but it's also the beginning of our serious playoff preparation now."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.