This was a half-hour after the game. Across the aisle, Vanderjagt sat in front of his locker still wearing his uniform. He was staring straight ahead, as though by force of will he could made that final kick bend to the left, just inside the upright.
“I have no idea why it went where it went,” Vanderjagt said. “As far as I was concerned, I hit it right.”
Everyone in town had their own least favorite playoff memory before this one.
The 41-0 pounding by the Jets on the road in Dungy’s first year. Or 1999, when Indianapolis had a bye and the home field, only to have the Tennessee Titans come in hanging by their fingernails a week after the “Music City Miracle” and still have enough left to beat the Colts. Or the last two seasons, when Indianapolis had the NFL’s most potent offense only to run smack into the Patriots and Bill Belichick’s defensive spider web in New England.
Now, there’s no argument.
These Colts showed early in the season they could win games relying on their defense, that they could win shootouts late on Manning’s arm, and hang on in close ones by relying on Edgerrin James’ legs to grind down the clock.
Now all those wins, 14 in all, seemed like increasingly distant memories. The residue was less anger than sadness.
“A loss is a loss, they’re all the same,” Colts president Bill Polian said finally, and he should know. Before taking the Colts job, he was the architect of the Buffalo Bills teams that went to four straight Super Bowls and returned each time empty-handed.
“They’re all awful, and the finality of it is the worst. A great season ends on a sour note and that’s how it’s going to be remembered.
Polian was already thinking ahead to next season. But a long look down the hallway sparked one more memory.
“It shows you how sometimes the ball bounces. We get a break and a guy with two bad legs scoops up the fumble. If that was Bob Sanders,” he said, “who knows where we are?”
The Colts now know only where they won’t be going — to the Super Bowl. When that still seemed likely, James Dungy, who often spent Sunday afternoons on the Colts sideline, asked his father whether he could arrange a pass in Detroit.
Not long ago, Tony Dungy remembered answering that would be the easy part. The hard part, he always told his son, would be getting there.
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