Let's be good sports (unlike our funny little friends in Chowdaville) and state that San Diego deserved to win (because they did) and we wish them well as they continue in the playoffs. You will notice that when Dungy and Norv Turner met at mid-field after the game there was no cold handshake, no rudeness to reporters, and no general douchebaginess. There also weren't any video cameras recording other people's signs, but we all knew that already. The point is how you win or lose is as important as winning itself. Some people disagree with that, but who gives a crap what classless morons think.
But, that aside, when I think back on this game I have a hard time wrapping my mind around why the Colts lost. They literally had everything they wanted to happen happen. Tomlinson was shut down. Rivers did not play in the fourth quarter. Manning was carving up San Diego's defense. Hell, after Gonzo's 56 yard TD, I thought the game was over.
But one thing happened this year that has hardly ever happened in Dungy's tenure: The Colts surrendered a fourth quarter lead. This happened once before, back in November against the Patriots. It has hardly ever happened during Dungy's tenure, and for it to happen twice (in two big games) in one season is bizarre. Against the Chargers, how it happened is the most mind boggling.
After taking a 24-21 lead on Gonzo's TD from Manning, the game seemed well in Indy's hands. Phillip Rivers and LaDanian Tomlinson were both out of the game. Tomlinson was ineffective, but Rivers was playing pretty well. Still, the Colts defense (ranked #3 overall in the league) should have mauled a Chargers offense with Billy Volek at QB and Michael Turner at RB. It should have been a 3-and-out, or maybe even a turnover. Instead, Volek engineered a 70-plus yard drive resulting in a TD (by Volek) on a QB sneak from the goal-line. When that happened, you got the sense the game was over, and the defense (which had carried this injury-riddled team all season) CHOKED BIG TIME.
There are a ton of reasons why this defensive meltdown occurred. First and foremost, the game plan stunk. Less than a month after singing Ron Meeks' praises, I now have to crucify him. The Colts defensive line got zero pressure all game long. No blitzes were called. None. If some where, they were either few and far between, or so poorly executed they went unnoticed by San Diego's o-line. Bob Sanders was hardly used as a weapon to engineer a pass rush, much like he did against the Titans in Week Two. With Dwight Freeney IRed and Robert Mathis still not 100% (he was used as a situational pass rusher and not a starter), the Colts relied on Darrell Reid, Josh Thomas, Ed Johnson, and Raheem Brock for their pass rush.
Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.
Penalties were also a killer, and none worse than Marlin Jackson's stupid face mask penalty on 3rd down. Marlin will forever be known as the guy who ended New England's season in 2006. However, his penalty on Sunday basically handed San Diego the game. If Jackson doesn't commit that penalty, the Chargers go three-and-out, punt, Colts get the ball back, and likely run out the clock. Instead, he gave SD a fresh set of downs plus 15 yards, and a few plays later the Chargers had the lead. These kinds of penalties hardly ever happen to Indy, and they NEVER happen during post-season games. In this game, they did.
The final reason was plain, simple inexperience. Yes, this team has players like Manning, Wayne, Clark, Saturday, Sanders, Vinatieri, and Brackett. If you look at those players in this game, they generally played well; Manning played brilliantly. However, all season long this club has relied on contributions from rookies; players like Ed Johnson, Tony Ugoh, Gonzo, and Keyunta Dawson. Indy has also leaned heavy on second year players and first time starters, like Freddie Keiaho, Tyjuan Hagler, Devon Aromashadu, and TJ Rushing. Many of these young guys simply seemed wide-eyed and out-of-sync playing in their first playoff game. Some, like Gonzo, played lights out. But especially on defense, the young guys simply did not make the plays necessary to win playoff games.
In a way, youth and inexperience really did in this team; the same young and vigor that carried them all season. The reality of 2007 is that this team was hurt and never got fully healthy. We thought, and rightly assumed they were healthy, but after watching Sunday's game it was clear players like Marvin Harrison had no business on the field. Brock and Mathis were not ready either, and Bethea seemed wonky as well. Unlike 2006, where despite injuries there were numerous veteran players ready to step up and fill-in (Booger McFarland, Mike Doss, Rob Morris, etc.), this season the back-ups were talented, tough, but inexperienced rookies going up against a veteran Chargers team. Even the Chargers back-ups, like Volek and Turner, are veteran guys who know how to win.
The silver-lining here is the youth and talent on this team got a taste of what real NFL football is about. Like the teams in 2003, 2004, and 2005, they got a taste of playoff defeat. Often, that taste will fuel a desire get better, perform better. Unlike 2006's squad, which had been through the wars together for several years, the make-up of this 2007 team was young and bright-eyed. This experience will aid them in 2008, as will the eventual return of players like Freeney, Morris, and hopefully Anthony McFarland. For us fans, it's a bitter disappointment. Yet another first round bye produces another quick playoff exit.