A tough loss -- but a justified one for the Colts
On a night filled with head-scratching frustration and dagger-through-the heart disappointment, Tony Dungy ultimately came to one conclusion: Justice was served.
SAN DIEGO -- On a night filled with head-scratching frustration and dagger-through-the heart disappointment, Tony Dungy ultimately came to one conclusion: Justice was served. The 23-21 loss his Colts suffered to the Chargers didn't feel good, not good at all. But it felt right -- in some sick, twisted way.
"It's a game we probably didn't deserve to win," Dungy said, "and we didn't."
That's because the Colts who showed up to play Sunday night at Qualcomm Stadium did not -- other than a hard, tenacious effort by the defense -- resemble the defending Super Bowl champions. These were not your Dungy Colts. These were not your Peyton Manning Colts. Instead, these were your Rod Dowhower Colts, circa 1986, a throwback to the days when mistakes were the norm and the team seemed more interested in acquiring the top pick in the draft.
Consider on this night:
• Manning throwing a career-high six interceptions (three to Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie), setting a franchise record in the process.
• Adam Vinatieri, one of the best clutch kickers in NFL history, missing two field goals, including the 29-yard chip shot that would've given Indianapolis a one-point lead with 1:31 left.
• The special teams allowing two touchdowns by San Diego return specialist Darren Sproles -- a kickoff return and a punt return, both in the first quarter.
• Dungy calling a dumb final timeout with 1:34 left before Vinatieri's last field goal attempt. That final timeout handcuffed Manning when he got the ball back with 22 seconds left because he had no way to stop the clock.
Yet despite all that, the turnovers and errant kicks and special-teams breakdowns and all the rest, the Colts still -- remarkably, incredibly -- had a chance to win after rallying from a 23-0 deficit.
The win even seemed to be a foregone conclusion when Colts running back Joseph Addai appeared to have picked up a first down on a 3-yard run to the Chargers' 6 with 1:36 remaining. Officials on the field signaled a first down but officials in the replay booth challenged the spot. That caused an uproar on the Indianapolis sideline. Dungy had never seen that happen before, a replay challenging a spot in the final minutes.
Referee Gene Steratore reversed the call on the field and set up a fourth-and-1. The next play was, amazingly, even more bizarre and frustrating for the Colts.
Manning was on the field to run off clock time and try to draw the Chargers offside. As tight end Ben Utecht arose from a three-point stance, two other Colts started to motion to a new formation. Indy runs this play all the time, and according to Dungy, the league office said just last week that the Utecht type of shift was legal.
But it wasn't legal Sunday night, at least not to Steratore's officiating crew. Out came the false start flag, the call being that Utecht's move was too abrupt. Dungy complained in vain to officials. Still, he had Mr. Clutch -- Vinatieri -- waiting to give the Colts the lead.
Instead, the kick went wide right barely. A few minutes later, the loss was official, and all of a sudden Indianapolis finds itself in a mini-crisis mode, with a two-game losing streak and just a one-game division lead over Jacksonville and Tennessee.
Yes, we know what you're thinking, that the Colts had a hangover from last week's tough loss to the Patriots, that they simply couldn't rebound quick enough from that emotionally draining game. To make matters worse, the physical shortcomings were even tougher to overcome.
On the pregame injury report, Indy looked like a team that had traveled to San Diego in an ambulance. The offense was missing three starters -- wide receiver Marvin Harrison, tight end Dallas Clark and left tackle Tony Ugoh. Out on defense were defensive tackle Raheem Brock and linebackers Freddie Keiaho and Tyjuan Hagler.
Although Dungy preaches to his team not to use injuries as an excuse, Manning's offense was clearly undermanned. The Colts had just 17 active players on offense, and during the game, tackles Charlie Johnson and Ryan Diem were injured. That left Manning with three wide receivers, two tight ends, five offensive linemen and three running backs.
"We don't use injuries as an excuse, but we still had a chance to win the game," Manning said. "We have no choice but to refocus. To lose two in a row is disappointing. Getting a win is the best remedy for a two-game losing streak."
Manning and Dungy had pained looks on their faces after the game, but few players were seen in the locker room. That's because they were in the training room. Defensive end Dwight Freeney left in the fourth quarter with a lower left leg injury. He left the stadium wearing a boot. Defensive end Keyunta Dawson followed him with what appeared to be a broken or badly bruised hand.
Indianapolis was down to third-stringers along the defensive and offensive line, at linebacker and at wide receiver.
"We certainly have not had a lot of breaks go our way as far as injuries," Manning said. "A lot of those things are out of your control. Hopefully, we can get some guys back. We've got to find a way to get a win, and certainly that starts with me playing better."
Manning blamed his interceptions and misfires on bad throws and bad decisions, but it was clear early in the game that the offense was struggling with Aaron Moorehead and Craphonso Thorpe trying to play the roles of Harrison and Anthony Gonzalez in the three-receiver sets. Thorpe has been around the NFL for four years with four teams but hadn't caught a pass in a game until Sunday night. Utecht and Bryan Fletcher won't be confused with Clark at tight end.
It didn't help that the Colts trailed 16-0 just 10 minutes into the game. Manning, trying to make something happen, was intercepted three times in the opening quarter as he threw to spots in which the pass-catchers weren't present. Thorpe and Moorehead lack the speed and experience to replace the injured Indy starters. In each half, Manning dialed up potential touchdown passes that Reggie Wayne or Harrison would have caught. Thorpe and Moorehead missed getting to them by a step or two.
Then, when LaDainian Tomlinson gave San Diego a 23-0 lead with a 4-yard run midway through the second quarter, Manning was robbed of another offensive weapon. Now, he couldn't balance the offense with runs by Addai.
So Manning (34-for-58, 328 yards) hoped to just chip away at the Chargers defense. He found Wayne for an 8-yard touchdown pass for the Colts' first score. Then he directed a lengthy drive that resulted in Vinatieri's having to rush onto the field in the final 10 seconds of the half. But he could not connect on the rushed 42-yard attempt.
"You're running out there as fast as you can to get things going, and I was just trying to get it off before the clock ran out," Vinatieri said. "It was perfect operation. It was just on me. If I make either one of those two, the game is different, and I let the team down."
The Chargers gave the Colts every chance to come back. Philip Rivers struggled and made turnovers. Norv Turner kept calling Tomlinson running plays and was booed by the San Diego crowd. Manning kept firing passes and was in position to win.
But the Colts, taking their cue from Dungy, knew they didn't deserve a victory.
"Usually when you have that many turnovers and you make that many interceptions, you usually don't have a chance," Manning said. "We kept fighting. We had a chance there at the end."
The Colts had the chance, and the way they lost was even more painful -- even if the outcome was justified.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.