No one single play cost the Colts a chance at a second Super Bowl championship in the last four years. Not Pierre Garcon's second quarter drop, the Saints successful onside kick to begin the third quarter or even Tracy Porter's interception return for touchdown off of Peyton Manning in the fourth quarter.
Unfortunately, postseason disappointments are not new to this Indianapolis Colts team, but the previous two defeats have familiar and unsettling similarities. When the offense was backed deep in its own end, and when needing an important first down to run down the game clock, the Colts marginalized their future Hall of Fame quarterback, Peyton Manning.
In the 2009 wild card playoffs, the Colts lost to the San Diego Chargers, 23-17, in overtime. Late in the fourth quarter (and following a 52-yard Mike Scifres punt that went out of bounds on the Indianapolis 1-yard line) the Colts had the ball and a 3-point lead with 2:41 remaining. Needing a first down to kill the clock, the Colts ran Joseph Addai twice and netted a total of 8 yards while the Chargers exorcised their final two times out. On 3rd down and 2, Peyton Manning was sacked for an 8-yard loss.
The Colts punted and the Chargers kicked a game-tying field goal with less than a minute left in regulation. San Diego would win the overtime coin toss and score on their opening possession to eliminate the Colts from last year's postseason.
In Super Bowl XLIV, again the Colts led and took possession in the shadow of their own end zone. The Colts were up by 7-points but, this time, in the second quarter. Again they needed to move the chains to prevent their defense from having to take the field.
Needing a crucial first down and with a 4-time league MVP at quarterback, the Colts offense, again, took the ball out of Peyton Manning's hands.
On first down, the Colts ran a dive play to Mike Hart for 4-yards. On second down, it was Joseph Addai up the middle for 5 more yards. Following a New Orleans timeout it was again straight ahead to Mike Hart, same as two plays earlier but from the right side. This time Hart was stopped for no gain and the Colts punted.
"You have to get a first down there, no matter what you call," Dallas Clark said after the game.
The Saints got the ball near midfield and 5-plays later kicked a field goal to cut the Colts lead going into halftime, 10-6.
"As an offensive unit, we have to get a first down, we have to move the ball, we have to either kill the clock or try to score, either one, whatever presents itself, but either way, we have to eat that clock up," continued Clark. "Going into halftime with no points exchanged, that was an unfortunate opportunity for us."
When the Colts took over possession of the ball on their own 1 and with 1:49 remaining in the first half, they held a 10-3 lead.
"The third-and-one execution of the play was disappointing," said Peyton Manning. "We feel like you should convert that third down and we didn't, certainly gave them a short field, and gave them the easy field goal. That was a disappointing series."
Following the failed, short yardage conversion, the Saints would outscore Indianapolis 28-7 throughout the rest of Super Bowl XLIV.
While the Colts were conservative with the play calling at the end of the first half, the Saints were not. Before the turning the ball over to the Colts, New Orleans coach Sean Payton made one his many aggressive calls on Super Bowl Sunday deciding to forego the short field goal. Pierre Thomas was stopped short of the end zone after a stiff goal line stand led by Gary Brackett and Clint Session.
"We were down there close in the second quarter and we had talked about being aggressive coming into this game, said Sean Payton. "Granted, Indianapolis had a good stand down there in the fourth down, and fortunately we were able to hold them and force the punt. We were able to come back against the field goal before the half, in fact, the last play of the half."
While certain individual plays were critical to the New Orleans Saints earning the first Super Bowl championship in franchise history, the failed offensive series from late in the second quarter should be noted by the Indianapolis Colts as they review their upset loss at Sun Life Stadium.
Next time, and in the next postseason, the Colts might consider using Peyton Manning's arm to pick up a needed first down instead of relying on their less potent running game.