In a city known for the wildest of soirées, New Orleans partygoers are likely feeling the physical effects of a celebration like no other. Meanwhile, the Indianapolis Colts and their fans are dealing with a hangover that’ll last until training camp opens in late July.
Leading up to Indianapolis’ win over Chicago in Super Bowl XLI, former Colts coach Tony Dungy repeatedly said the only pain worse than not making American sports’ biggest game is getting there and losing. The words and expressions of Dungy’s replacement, Jim Caldwell, said as much following Sunday’s 31-17 loss to the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV.
“Anytime you lose the last game of the season, it’s difficult,” Caldwell said. “Particularly on this stage, in this particular game, it’s a bitter pill to swallow.”
With a second Lombardi Trophy in four years, the Colts could’ve moved up the ladder of football’s historic hierarchy. Instead, they became a mere footnote in New Orleans’ story of triumph and redemption. After a great start, the winningest team of the decade was outcoached and outplayed in every facet.
New Orleans’ field goal before halftime which cut Indianapolis’ lead to 10-6 was big, but its onside kick and recovery to start the second half were monumental. If the Colts got the ball, extended their lead and went on to win, Saints coach Sean Payton would’ve been crucified. Instead, having the guts to shoulder ultimate blame, he will be remembered for the single greatest coaching decision in Super Bowl history.
“It was a big momentum swing coming out of the half like that,” Colts tight end Dallas Clark said. “I kind of had a feeling they were going to try and do something. They weren’t getting much going offensively, so they had to get a spark somewhere.”
The resulting spark ignited New Orleans’ offensive powder keg. Hobbled Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney’s effectiveness reduced with each play while fellow bookend Robert Mathis was rendered equally useless. With no pressure, the Colts’ linebackers and secondary were no match, as Drew Brees carved them up with ninja-like precision.
Yet despite giving up scores on all of New Orleans’ second-half possessions, Indianapolis had a chance to tie or win it late. But unlike in the Colts’ NFL-record seven fourth-quarter comebacks this season, quarterback Peyton Manning couldn’t conduct another masterpiece. Instead, Tracy Porter’s 74-yard interception return for a touchdown with 3:12 left will provide Manning a recurring nightmare for the rest of his life.
“(The Saints) played well in all phases,” Manning said. “They made some critical plays on special teams, they were good on offense and the defense made the plays they had to. They deserved it today.”
Yes they did. It was New Orleans’ time, and no team has deserved a championship more. The Saints’ effort on the field and philanthropic work off it have provided a beacon of hope in a city still mired in despair over four years after Hurricane Katrina. Though it was discussed even more than Freeney’s bum ankle prior to Sunday’s game, the Saints’ emotional value to New Orleans can’t be overstated. Even the most die-hard Colts supporter can take some solace in knowing a place with everyday problems beyond their comprehension finally felt good about itself after so much anguish.
Unfortunately, that far from alleviates all the agony.
“This is a tough feeling,” Colts linebacker Clint Session said. “You let the city down. We let ourselves down.”
This season was still an undeniable success for Indianapolis, which won an AFC title after being picked to go as low as 8-8 by some experts. It overcame the loss of three defensive starters to injury, including former defensive player of the year Bob Sanders. That would’ve crippled virtually every other team in the league, but the Colts didn’t miss a beat and now have valuable experience that can’t be quantified. Offensively, wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez was lost in Week 1, but Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie were better than the most optimistic of preseason appraisals; running backs Joseph Addai and Donald Brown showed consistency and flashes of brilliance; the offensive line was nearly perfect; and Manning was a mastermind of unfathomable proportions.
The Colts’ future is unquestionably bright, but the clock is ticking. They likely have a three-year window before the inevitable age-induced decline begins. They will be a better team next season, and if the injury bug fails to bite, look out.
The Colts and Saints seem destined for a Super Bowl rematch, possibly as soon as next season. But even for two teams that proved you make your own breaks, you never know how the ball’s going to bounce, and only time will tell.
Until then, for the Colts and their fans, the hurt remains.