With eight NFL seasons under his belt, Colts
quarterback Peyton Manning has just one AFC Championship game under his belt --
and too many early exits from the playoffs for his liking. After leading the
Colts to a 13-1 record before sitting out all but three series of the final two
regular season games, the 21-18 loss to the Steelers left it's mark.
"No question, we're disappointed," he said. "All I'm going to do, and I get tired of saying it, is keep working.
"I think we put ourselves in a good position with the bye, but we just weren't able to take that next step and I'm disappointed. It is hard to swallow. Give Pittsburgh credit for coming in here and playing better than us."
Manning was pestered all day by a Steelers defense that brought pressure from different angles and in overwhelming numbers, barely giving Manning time to set his feet and survey the field for an open receiver. They sacked him five times, and forced him to throw it away or make rushed throws even more often than that.
It was symptomatic of the problems the Colts experienced against the Jaguars and Chargers -- the last two games where the Colts starters were in for a full four quarters. During those two games, Manning was sacked seven times after being sacked just 13 times during the first 12 games. The Steelers only managed two sacks against Indianapolis when the teams met during earlier this year.
"Let's just say we had some problems in
protection," Manning said. "I'll give
mixes up their blitzes and their looks every single week....It's kind of the
signature of Coach Dick LeBeau."
Whether it was the linemen not getting the job done, backs and tight ends not picking up outside rushers correctly, or the right offensive line blocking scheme not being called for the defensive alignment, the bottom line was that Manning was right. There were protection problems....again. And that contributed to the Colts sputtering on offense from the start, being forced to punt on their first four possessions.
"We just couldn't get much going there," Manning said. "
Manning and the Colts didn't quit though. They battled back early in the fourth quarter, closing the gap to 21-10 on a 50-yard pass play to Dallas Clark. With less than two minutes remaining and Indianapolis in possession of two timeouts, they faced a second-and-two and a third-and-two, but decided to go deeper rather than just try to move the chains or inch the ball a bit closer for a field goal.
"We were trying to win the game there,"
Manning said. "We threw the takeoff route to Reggie [
When the two pass plays failed, Mike Vanderjagt trotted out to kick the field goal that would tie the game. But his kick sailed badly to the right. Not even close.
"It's a tough feeling to see that," Manning said. "We put so much in to trying to get our position and it was such a long season. We spent so much time studying and preparing."
But he was quick to offer support to Vanderjagt,
despite the missed opportunity to send the game into overtime.
"One play is not the reason the Colts didn't win this game," he said.
One of the big questions heading into the game was whether or not the Colts would be rusty after resting their starters for two games and then having a bye week before getting to see live game action again. Manning dismissed the notion that the layoff had any impact on the team.
"No, the disappointing thing is that we played
really well this year in a number of games in September, October and November,
but in the past two games we've played teams have come in here and outplayed
us," he said in reference to the Chargers and the Steelers. "It's
disappointing because you would like to be playing your best football in
December and January."
"Every game that I play, I take it personal when we play well and when we lose," he explained. "I'm disappointed and I can't give you anymore of an explanation than that. It will be more disappointing tonight and tomorrow, and it certainly takes time to move on from a game like this."
And when he moves on, he realizes that he may be
missing some key players from the 2005 squad as the Colts evaluate their talent
base and contract situations for the 2006 season.
"That's always the case in the NFL," he said. " That's why we're never trying to build toward next year or talk about next year. It feels kind of like college when you lose your seniors. We possibly are going to lose some guys and I really like our team this year.
"We had good guys and guys you want to win
But regardless of what moves are made, one thing's for certain. Manning will return with the same intensity and determination that he's brought to the field for eight years -- if not more so.
"I've always played with a sense of urgency ever since my rookie year and I've never accepted losing," he said. " I never like to say that's okay, we'll get them next year because it's not okay."