- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS | Indianapolis’ season ended the same way it started.

The defense couldn’t get off the field, the offense couldn’t run the ball and there were too many penalties.

It wasn’t the closing chapter Tony Dungy or Peyton Manning scripted after what may have been their most rewarding NFL regular season together. Instead, Dungy, Manning and the rest of the Colts are going home empty-handed again after an overtime loss in San Diego.

“I didn’t expect to be having this press conference today, and I didn’t expect to be going through this process just yet,” Dungy said Sunday after players cleared out their lockers.

The truth is it shouldn’t have been a complete surprise.

While the Colts were the league’s hottest team during the past two months, the problems that emerged in September were never completely repaired.

Indianapolis’ running game averaged a meager 3.4 yards a carry in the regular season and repeatedly demonstrated its inability to convert on third-and-short - a flaw that doomed the Colts in Saturday’s 23-17 loss. Twice late in the fourth quarter, they needed 2 yards or fewer on third down to keep the ball and run the clock. They failed both times.

Even Manning, the newly minted three-time MVP, couldn’t save the Colts on Saturday.

The run defense, which improved dramatically after the first month, still had trouble against small, quick backs. Maurice Jones-Drew helped Jacksonville play keepaway in a mid-December game with the Colts, and Darren Sproles did virtually the same thing in overtime Saturday.

Worse yet, the Colts (12-5) looked sloppy in San Diego. They drew seven penalties in the fourth quarter or overtime, dropped passes, left Chargers defenders unblocked and missed tackles, including a couple on Sproles’ decisive 22-yard touchdown run.

Dungy told his team Friday night that would be a recipe for disaster. It was.

“In the playoffs, you have to make plays in the fourth quarter and overtime. We didn’t do it, and they did,” Dungy said. “That was the difference.”

How the Colts move beyond a second straight postseason loss to the Chargers is nearly as uncertain as Dungy’s future.

Dungy reiterated Sunday he plans to take about a week to decide whether he will return to the sideline next season, though he certainly could take more time since Indianapolis has a succession plan in place. Associate head coach Jim Caldwell will take over whenever Dungy decides to retire.

But the lingering questions don’t stop at Dungy’s office.

After losing their first playoff game for the fourth time in Dungy’s seven seasons, there was some question whether the Colts need wholesale changes.

“When you don’t meet expectations in this business, a lot of people think you need to blow things up. That’s not our style,” Dungy said. “We’ve got to get more consistent on defense. We played the run well at times, but when we started the season, we didn’t play it well.”

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