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.
“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.
“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.”
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