Super Bowl loss reveals uncomfortable truth about Colts

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- All of a sudden, you find yourself grappling with some questions about the Indianapolis Colts.

You have to respect their consistent ability to maintain elite status. You have to salute them for the way they've overcome coaching and roster changes to stay on top in the standings.

But you can't help but wonder whether one of the NFL's top teams of the decade is truly built for only one thing: Regular-season success.

Let's face it, a single Super Bowl victory isn't much to show for a team that has gone seven consecutive years with 12 or more wins in the regular season.

And to get there only twice in that stretch and for the second time to end the way it did Sunday night is, well, more than a little disappointing. It makes all of that fury over the Colts concentrating on preserving starters rather than going for a 16-0 regular season, so that they'd have a shot to be a Super Bowl winner, seem so silly now.

"On behalf of the Colts and our team, we're very disappointed and we're sorry to our fans," Peyton Manning said after the Colts' 31-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV. "I'm very sorry to our fans that we weren't able to get it done."

It was reasonable to expect that the Colts would hoist a second Lombardi Trophy in four seasons. They had Manning, the NFL's Most Valuable Player, at quarterback. They had performed better in the playoffs. The Saints were new to all of this; they were just supposed to be happy to have gotten this far.

However, it was the Colts who looked like the club that had never occupied the game's biggest stage Sunday night.

They were beaten physically. They were beaten strategically.

The Saints won this game with a surprise onside kick at the start of the second half that they recovered and then converted into a touchdown. And they won it with a successful two-point conversion pass that they were awarded after a wise challenge by their coach, Sean Payton. And they won it with a rookie kicker who became the first in Super Bowl history to boot three field goals from 40 yards and beyond.

"To get all the way here and then fall short, that is very frustrating," Colts defensive end Robert Mathis said. "But we can't hang our heads. We have got to keep our heads up."

That was easier said than done.

The Colts were a somber bunch. They clearly understood that so much more was expected of them. They clearly expected so much more of themselves. They knew, better than anyone, that this was a missed opportunity that would linger for a while.

"Guys were obviously upset," defensive tackle Dan Muir said. "This was not the outcome that we wanted in this football game. It is hard to take a loss, especially one of this magnitude."

For the Colts, the death blow came when cornerback Tracy Porter returned an interception of a Manning pass 74 yards for a touchdown to put the Saints ahead, 31-17, with 3:12 remaining. Manning, who dissects everything that happens on the field as well as any player or coach in the history of the game, didn't have a whole lot to say about that one beyond complimenting Porter for making a good break on the ball and "just a heck of a play."

But you got the idea it wasn't going to be the Colts' night after the first quarter, when Manning was doing more watching than playing. You also knew this wasn't going to be their night when the best of what Manning did during his limited time on the field ("precious" was the word he used to describe the Colts' possessions) was be more of a game-manager than play-maker.

Rather than attack with his passing arm, Manning was seeing holes in the Saints defense that allowed Joseph Addai, the starting running back on the NFL's bottom-ranked rushing team, to have some big gains. But the Colts weren't going to win this game pounding the ball on the ground.

Eventually, Manning did end up piling up some yards, but he never really was a match for his counterpart and Super Bowl MVP, Drew Brees. The fact the Colts only scored a touchdown in the second half while the Saints offense came up with 18 points in the final two quarters said it all about the way that Brees, who had finished a distant second in the league MVP voting, outdueled Manning.

Perhaps the most telling drive of the game was the Colts' first, which saw them march to the Saints' 20 but only settle for a field goal.

Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams clearly got the better of him with his aggressive pass rush. Although Manning wasn't sacked, defenders hit him often after he released the ball and began making him feel uncomfortable in the pocket, which began to show as the game progressed.

"We felt like we played well this postseason," Manning said. "At times, we made some plays against the Saints, but obviously didn't make enough plays and just didn't play well enough to win."

In a nutshell, that describes what the Colts have mostly done after impressive regular seasons.

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