HEADING HOME

The Colts (12-5), after winning their final nine regular-season games to make the playoffs, overcame a four-point halftime deficit before losing a late lead in a 23-17 overtime loss to the San Diego Chargers (9-8) in an AFC Wild Card Playoff game in front of 68,082 at Qualcomm Stadium Saturday.

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Colts Lose to San Diego Chargers, 23-17, in Overtime in First Round of Playoffs
SAN DIEGO, Cal. – All season, they won in difficult circumstances, with clutch second-half efforts. All season, they did it in hostile venues.

All season, they scrapped and clawed. All season, they grinded.

The grinded again Saturday night.

It just wasn't enough.

The Colts, who rallied from second-half, double-digit road deficits to win four times in the regular season, rallied again on Saturday night, and if the deficit weren't as overwhelming, the task was no less formidable, the result no less imant.

The Colts (12-5), after winning their final nine regular-season games to make the playoffs, overcame a four-point halftime deficit before losing a late lead in a 23-17 overtime loss to the San Diego Chargers (9-8) in an AFC Wild Card Playoff game in front of 68,082 at Qualcomm Stadium.

"Obviously, a disappointed group in our locker room," Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said. "We played hard – very hard – but we didn't play well enough to win. . . . San Diego played great. They have a lot of talent. "Whoever plays them, they'll be a tough out."

For the Colts, it was their earliest exit from the postseason since 2002, Dungy's first season. They had made the AFC Divisional Playoff round five consecutive seasons.

"Obviously, when you begin the season when you play for this team, you have Super Bowl aspirations," said Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney, who had two sacks Saturday. "When you can't get to that game, I don't care how it happens, it's disappointing."

Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding tied it with a 26-yard field goal with 33 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, then – after the Chargers won the overtime coin flip – Chargers running back Darren Sproles won it with a 22-yard run 6:20 into overtime.

"It's disappointing to lose a playoff game, especially a game you had some chances to win," said Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who completed 25 of 43 passes for 310 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. "The Chargers made the plays when it counted. Give them credit. It's obviously a disappointing loss. . . .

"We knew it was going to be a tough game, a close game. We've been winning those fourth-quarter games. Today, the Chargers just did a better job executing."

The Colts never had possession in overtime, with the Chargers taking the kickoff and driving 75 yards on 11 plays. Indianapolis was penalized three times for 25 yards on the drive, including a holding penalty against cornerback Tim Jennings that turned an incomplete pass on 3rd-and-8 from the Indianapolis 40 into a first down at the 35.

"We gave them some third-down conversions, and then the penalties on the last drive – I'll have to see them to see what it looked like there," Dungy said. "Defensive holding is not something we get called a lot on, but that was a big, big play."

Said Jennings, "They got the penalty call. They got the call and we didn't. It was kind of tough, but questionable. . . . Everything was real questionable out there. In tight games like this, you've got to let us play."

Of the final drive, Freeney said, "There were a lot of things out of our hands that we couldn't do anything about. Questionable calls – whatever you want to call it. We just didn't get the job done.

"We went out there and played our hearts out. The defense went out there and played our hearts out, and there were three instances out there that killed us in overtime. As a defense, it's hard to recover from something like that."

Added Freeney, "I've never seen anything like that in my life. Never. It was horrible, but I won't go further into that out of respect for Tony."

The Colts, after trailing 14-10 at halftime, took the lead on a 72-yard third-quarter touchdown pass from Manning to wide receiver Reggie Wayne, then preserved the lead for more than 20 tight, field position-oriented minutes with a series of turnovers and defensive stands:

• With 2:05 remaining in the third quarter, Sproles caught a screen pass and ran to the Colts 2, where Jennings stripped him of the ball. The ball rolled into the end zone, where Colts defensive end Raheem Brock recovered.

• With just over 12 minutes remaining, safety Antoine Bethea intercepted a pass from quarterback Philip Rivers from the Colts 32 in the end zone.

• With just under three minutes remaining, defensive end Robert Mathis registered his second sack of the game – and the Colts' fourth – to stop a Chargers drive at the San Diego 47.

But the Chargers, who won their last four regular-season games to become the first team in NFL history to make the playoffs after starting 4-8, turned in a huge defensive stand to create a late opportunity to tie or take the lead.

"We were right there in the fourth quarter, which we said it was going to come down to," Dungy said. "We had a chance to close out the game. We had to make one first down, and we didn't make it. . . . I know our offense is disappointed. When we've got the ball and we have to make a first down to ice the game, we weren't able to do it."

With the Colts facing 3rd-and-2 from the Indianapolis 9, Chargers linebacker Tim Dobbins sacked Manning at the Indianapolis 1.

"We had chances to put the game away and just didn't do it," Manning said.

Said Dungy, "We were trying to make a first down. We knew if we make one first down the game's over. We had a quick pass on and didn't get it off. We wanted to put the ball in the hands of our quarterback."

After a 63-yard punt by Colts punter Hunter Smith, Sproles returned it 26 yards to the Colts 38. Seven plays later, Kaeding's 26-yard field goal made it, 17-17, forcing overtime.

"We just kind of fell apart at the end," Brock said. "It was just little things. We just fell apart at the end."

The game was the latest in a series of nail-biting, memorable games between the teams, with the Chargers knocking Indianapolis from the playoffs for a second consecutive season.

The Colts beat the Chargers, 23-20, in San Diego in the regular season, with San Diego beating the Colts twice last season – 23-21 in the regular season in San Diego and 28-24 in an AFC Divisional Playoff game in Indianapolis.

The Colts beat the Chargers, 34-31, in overtime in 2004 in Indianapolis, and San Diego beat Indianapolis in Indianapolis in 2005, 26-17.

"They're a good team," Dungy said. "They've had great records out here. We've had great records. We've played them and every game has been like this, where it's a fourth-quarter play to win the game. They made it today. They made the plays to win it.

"They're a very, very good football team. They're well-coached. They have a lot of good players."

With the victory, San Diego advanced to the AFC Divisional Playoff round for a third consecutive season. The Chargers, who made the playoffs as the No. 4 seed, will play either the Tennessee Titans or the Pittsburgh Steelers next weekend.

The opponent will depend on the winner of Sunday's Wild Card game between the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins. If the Ravens (11-5) win, the Chargers will play the second-seeded Steelers (12-4) at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pa., on Sunday, January 11, at 4:45 p.m.

If the Dolphins (11-5) win, the Chargers will play the top-seeded Titans (13-3) at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn., on Saturday, January 10.

The Colts, who moved effectively on their two first-quarter possessions, took a 7-0 lead with an efficient touchdown drive on their second possession.

Manning, the Colts' 11-time Pro Bowl quarterback who this week was named the Associated Press' Most Valuable Player for the third time, led a nine-play, 81-yard drive on the Colts' second possession, which ended with a 1-yard run by running back Joseph Addai.

Manning completed six of six passes for 81 yards on the drive.

Manning completed first-down passes of 36 and 17 yards to wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez to move the ball from the Colts 45 to the Chargers 2. Manning finished the quarter completing 8 of 11 passes for 102 yards and no touchdowns with no interceptions.

The Chargers tied the game, 7-7, on a 3-yard run by LaDainian Tomlinson, a play that capped a four-play, 44-yard drive.

The Colts immediately retook the lead, driving 42 yards in eight plays with kicker Adam Vinatieri's 43-yard field goal making it 10-7, Colts.

The teams exchanged punts before the Chargers took possession at the Colts 45 with 3:01 remaining in the half.

San Diego then drove 45 yards on six plays with Sproles' nine-yard run giving the Chargers a 14-10 halftime lead.

"We certainly knew the Chargers were an excellent team – probably better than their record indicated," Manning said. "When you have to come out there and play them here, it's a tough place to play."

Said Dungy, "That's the thing about the playoffs. Everybody starts even and going on the road is tough in the playoffs. We played hard and we came within a couple of plays of winning the game, but in the end, you have to win them. We didn't win today. . . . They had a lot of games like this. They won them in December.

They're hot right now, and like I said, nobody's going to want to play them. . . ."

And for the Colts, it was the end of a memorable season, one in which they started 3-4 for the first time in a decade, then made the postseason with a memorable, dramatic two-month run.

"It was disappointing," Dungy said. "I was proud of the guys, how hard they played. We'll just have to come back next year, work to get to this point then play a little bit better."

Said Colts safety Antoine Bethea, "We ended the season good, but the playoffs are a new season. You lose, you go home. We needed to win. We didn't. It's a tough one to swallow."

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