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Another year, another missed opportunity for Manning

INDIANAPOLIS -- Peyton Manning couldn't get comfortable
against the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense Sunday. Then he had to
squirm through the latest round of questions about another playoff
failure.

After his Indianapolis Colts lost 21-18 to the Steelers, at home
no less, Manning stared into the cameras and tried to explain the
disappointment of knowing that another promising season had slipped
away without a trip to the Super Bowl.

"All I know is to keep working, to come back next year and be a
better quarterback, a better leader," he said. "You get tired of
saying that after every playoff loss because pretty soon, you start
running out of years."

Clearly, this loss was more frustrating to Manning, now 3-6 in
the postseason. It was a blown chance, perhaps his best yet of
reaching the Super Bowl.

Manning and the Colts opened 13-0 to earn the AFC's top seed and
home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. And with New England
already eliminated, the two-time MVP finally seemed primed to take
Indianapolis all the way.

Three weeks of rest were also supposed to make Manning stronger,
and the Colts healthier.

But Indy (14-3) didn't play well, and Manning hardly looked like
himself until he nearly rallied the Colts in the fourth quarter.

The sharp, accurate passes that have defined Manning's career
were missing early. Instead, he was plagued by overthrows, wide
throws and heavy pressure. He finished 22-of-38 for 290 yards with
one touchdown, five sacks and several hurries. Afterward, he
grudgingly accepted it for what it was -- another season of failing
to meet expectations.

"I couldn't tell you how much I studied these guys over the
last two weeks," Manning said. "It's disappointing we didn't win
the game. But I'm going to keep trying, that's all I can say."

The Colts' high-scoring offense opened the game with four
straight punts. They managed one first down -- on a one-handed catch
by Marvin Harrison -- and only 25 total yards in the first quarter.
As the Steelers continued bringing pressure, things got worse.

"They blitzed and that's their style," Colts coach Tony Dungy
said. "We made some throws against the blitz in the fourth
quarter, but not enough. They made the plays."

To Manning, it's become an all-too-common refrain.

He lost his first three playoff games, including an embarrassing
41-0 defeat to the New York Jets in January 2003. Then came
back-to-back losses the last two years at New England in the rain,
snow and ice. After those losses, some contended the only way for
Manning and the Colts to reach the Super Bowl was to stay indoors.

Their 13-game winning streak assured them of that much, but the
Steelers' defense destroyed any chance of it this season.

It wasn't all Manning's fault, to be sure. Tarik Glenn was
called for two false starts, one that cost Indianapolis a
touchdown. Mike Vanderjagt, the NFL's most accurate kicker, missed
a 46-yard field goal that would have forced overtime after a gift
fumble by Jerome Bettis.

Receivers broke routes off short when Manning expected them to
run deeper. Edgerrin James was held mostly in check, and Pittsburgh
rattled the Colts' defense with two early touchdown drives.

"I'm looking for a safe word here, I don't want to be a bad
teammate," Manning said when asked about Indianapolis' blown
blocking assignments. "Pittsburgh gave us trouble and put us in
some situations we're not usually in."

But, as often happens, the burden fell to Manning, and he
couldn't save his team.

"We just didn't play well enough today," Dungy said. "They
played better than we did, they deserved to win the game. We played
hard and gave ourselves a chance but didn't quite make enough
plays."

Manning did stabilize the Colts by leading them on a 96-yard
drive in the second quarter, but they settled for a 20-yard field
goal after Glenn's miscue on third-and-goal from the 1 cost them a
TD. He hooked up with Dallas Clark on a nifty, 50-yard TD pass
early in the fourth quarter to make it 21-10.

Manning delivered again with a six-play, 80-yard drive after an
interception call was curiously reversed. James eventually ran 3
yards for the TD and Manning threw to Reggie Wayne on a 2-point
conversion to make it 21-18.

Then, with the season on the line, Manning drove the Colts to
the Pittsburgh 28 but missed Wayne on two straight throws. Manning
figured Vanderjagt would force overtime.

"When you're down three and you get to that distance, you feel
like it's a safe field-goal distance, so you try to go for the
win," Manning said. "You try to be aggressive and try to win the
game."

But Vanderjagt pushed it wide right as Manning winced on the
sideline.

"The reality is when you see it going right, you know the
season is over," Manning said. "It's a hard feeling to swallow."