CINCINNATI –Heading into one of the AFC's toughest venues, Indianapolis knew a fast start and 60 minutes of execution was needed to compete successfully against 8-4 Cincinnati.
What was known did not happen as the Colts fell to a 21-point deficit in a 42-28 loss to the Bengals.
"It wasn't enough," said Andrew Luck of the Colts' comeback bid. "We got beat by a better team today. The Bengals beat us fair and square. There's no way to really mince those words.
"(The) slow start hurt us. Guys got a little bit going there in the second half, but not enough. They beat us, they really did."
Though the Colts did not convert any of six first-half third down attempts, it was only a 7-0 game until just before the half.
The Colts appeared to stop BenJarvus Green-Ellis on a fourth-down rush from the one with 1:06 remaining, but officials overturned the original call to hand Cincinnati a 14-0 cushion.
"They reversed it. We thought we made a play and held them," said a tight-lipped Chuck Pagano. Tackle Josh Chapman appeared to have made contact with Green-Ellis, who fell just short of the goal-line.
The matter was exacerbated when Cincinnati drove 80 yards to open the third quarter on another Green-Ellis one-yard score.
Indianapolis quickly countered as Luck (29-of-46 passing for 326 yards and four touchdowns) hit Da'Rick Rogers and LaVon Brazill on 69- and 19-yard touchdown passes in the next four minutes.
It was the closest the Colts could get. Andy Dalton (24-of-35 passing for 275 yards) hit two touchdown passes before keeping for another touchdown as the Bengals went up, 42-21 with 4:03 remaining.
Luck hit Rogers and Brazill again for scores, the final one coming with 1:20 left in the game.
Cincinnati was kept from moving into the AFC's second seed when New England scored twice late to beat Cleveland.
Indianapolis fell behind the Bengals in the playoff seeding hunt but earned the AFC South title when Tennessee lost at Denver. That outcome helped no emotions from the loss to Cincinnati.
"When you have an opportunity to control your own destiny, that's what we wanted to do. (We wanted) to get in because we won," said Pagano. "These guys have done a lot of great things to get to the point where we're at.
"We know winning the division is the easiest way to get in. We came down here with the mindset that we wanted to win this game and win the division that way."
Indianapolis now has converted five-of-40 first-half third downs in the past six games. Opponents are clicking on 50 percent during that same time.
Cincinnati opened with an 83-yard touchdown drive after the Colts punted. Dalton hit six-of-seven passes for 81 yards.
The Colts now have led in the first half only once in the last six outings.
The lone sustained Colts march in the first half ended with Adam Vinatieri missing a 44-yard field goal. Cincinnati converted its possession with the Green-Ellis score for the 14-point cushion.
The Bengals maintained possession of the ball for 11:59 in the third quarter and for 37:45 of the game. Five Indianapolis penalties handed the Bengals first downs.
"(We) gave up too many big plays in the run and pass game," said Pagano. "Some returns in the second half hurt us. Certainly a couple of the penalties we committed, you just can't beat yourself.
"It's too hard to win games on the road, December football, playoff atmosphere, playoff-type football and try to win to seal your division up, you just can't beat yourself up like that."
Cincinnati had 430 net yards to the Colts' 389 and owned a 155-63 edge on the ground. Thirty-two of the Colts rushing yards came on two Luck scampers.
Giovani Bernard (12 rushes, 99 yards) and Green-Ellis (48) nearly topped 150 yards as a tandem for the second straight week.
Eight Colts receivers had first-half receptions, but T.Y. Hilton was not among them. Hilton finished with two receptions for seven yards, both coming in the fourth quarter.
Rogers had 107 yards on six receptions, and Brazill's first touchdown snare came after he broke six tackles.
COLTS NOTES – Chuck Pagano has become the fifth Colts coach to earn playoff berths in the first two seasons with the club (Don McCafferty, 1970-71; Ted Marchibroda, 1974-75; Tony Dungy, 2002-03; Jim Caldwell, 2009-10)…Pagano has coached 29 straight contests without losing consecutive games, snapping McCafferty's streak of 28 for the most by a Colts coach who was starting his career…this is the club's 16th playoff berth in 30 seasons in Indianapolis, the 11th in the last 12 years…this is the Colts' eighth AFC South title (2003-07, 09-10, 12)…only New England has more since 2002 realignment…Luck's 7,493 passing yards rank behind Cam Newton (7,920) and Peyton Manning (7,874) for the most by any QBs in their first two seasons, and he moved ahead of Dan Marino (7,294)…this was Luck's second career four-TD game (at Detroit, 2012)…with 336 rushing yards, Luck has the second-highest seasonal total amassed by a Colts QB (441, Mike Pagel, 1983)…Adam Vinatieri (1,972) has scored in 158 straight games and 112 as a Colt and moved past John Kasay (1,970) into 9th-place in NFL scoring…RB-Chris Rainey (ankle) was the only player injured, and he will have an MRI on Monday.