INDIANAPOLIS - Tony Dungy thought these Indianapolis Colts were better than his Super Bowl champions.
They hardly looked like it Sunday.
A combination of turnovers, dropped passes, inexplicable penalties and defensive breakdowns allowed the Colts to do what few thought possible — end their quest to repeat as NFL champions before ever reaching New England.
“That’s how you lose these games,” Dungy lamented after a 28-24 loss to San Diego. “More of these games are lost than won, and we did things we hadn’t done all season.”
The Colts looked more like the impostors of two years ago, when they lost to eventual champion Pittsburgh in the divisional round after earning the AFC’s top seed, than the defending champions.
Back then, it was a sluggish start that cost them.
On Sunday, the cumulative effect of mistakes finally did them in.
Peyton Manning threw two interceptions near the goal line, Marvin Harrison fumbled after making his first reception in nearly three months, and unlike last year’s AFC championship game, Manning could not rally Indy with one of his trademark winning drives.
That wasn’t even the worst part.
Indy’s vaunted pass defense, ranked second in the NFL, allowed the Chargers to complete nine passes of at least 17 yards and throw for three touchdowns despite using a depleted lineup.
Antonio Gates was limited by a dislocated left big toe and never had much of an impact. LaDainian Tomlinson ran seven times for 28 yards before leaving with a bruised left knee early in the second quarter. Quarterback Philip Rivers left after hurting his right knee on the final play of the third quarter, forcing Billy Volek to rally the Chargers late, which he did.
“For the guys that were out there, we didn’t get a stop and they executed,” middle linebacker Gary Brackett said.
It was simply disheartening.
Not since a mid-November game at San Diego had the Colts played so uncharacteristically.
Bob Sanders drew a 15-yard taunting call after Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding missed a 48-yard field goal, and Marlin Jackson’s 15-yard face mask call on third down extended San Diego’s winning drive.
The Colts are now 0-4 all-time after playoff byes, a mark that will almost certainly rekindle the debate about whether they should ever want another week off. Players insisted, however, that wasn’t the problem Sunday.
Yet it was hard to argue that the Colts were themselves.
After an impressive opening drive that ended with a 25-yard TD pass from Manning to Clark, the Colts staggered.
Harrison’s fumble on the next series prevented Indianapolis from taking an even bigger lead, and then the Colts settled for a second-quarter field goal. They lost another scoring chance just before halftime when Reggie Wayne couldn’t catch an overthrown pass that went right to Antonio Cromartie deep in Chargers territory.
Things only got worse.
Twice Indy retook the lead, at 17-14 and 24-21, by winning challenges — one by Dungy, one by San Diego coach Norv Turner. But they couldn’t get the Chargers’ backups stopped.
Instead, Jackson, who ended last year’s AFC championship with an interception, kept the Chargers’ winning drive alive with the face mask penalty and Volek calmly guided San Diego down the field, scoring on a 1-yard sneak.
The play set up Manning for one final magical moment in the RCA Dome, but he threw three incompletions after the Colts moved inside the San Diego 10 with just under three minutes remaining. Three more incompletions on Indy’s final series sealed the Colts’ fate and typified the day.
“It was penalties, turnovers and too many big plays we gave up on defense,” Dungy said after what may have been his final game as an NFL coach. “We gave up a couple of big screen passes, long passes on third-and-long. We just didn’t do enough to win this game.”
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