By MICHAEL MAROT
AP Sports Writer
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.
Indy's running game averaged a meager 3.4 yards per carry in the regular season and repeatedly demonstrated its inability to convert on third-and-short -- a flaw that bit them hard in Saturday's 23-17 loss. Twice late in the fourth quarter, the Colts 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, the only black head coach to hoist the Lombardi Trophy, told his team Friday night that would be a recipe for disaster.
"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'll return to the sideline next season, though he could certainly take more time since Indy 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, some wonder 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."
For team president Bill Polian and owner Jim Irsay, there are more pressing decisions.
They must decide whether to re-sign 33-year-old center Jeff Saturday, a three-time Pro Bowler, who's scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. Starting cornerback Kelvin Hayden, whose interception return for a touchdown against Chicago sealed the Colts' Super Bowl victory also may hit the free market.
And there is a possibility Indy could release record-setting receiver Marvin Harrison, who turns 37 in August. He's coming off the least productive non-injury-plagued season of his career. Cutting him could save the Colts about $6 million in salary cap room next season, and Harrison has three years remaining on his contract.
"That's something we'll discuss in the next two months, and Bill usually finds a way to get that done," Dungy said. "We'll see what happens."
Yet the biggest flaws were exposed by the Chargers.
Sproles racked up nearly 330 total yards by poking holes in the Colts' defense and special teams, and San Diego converted on third-and-12 and third-and-8 in overtime, once courtesy of a defensive holding penalty on Tim Jennings.
And when Indy was pinned deep inside its own 10, something San Diego punter Mike Scifres did all game, they couldn't run their way out of bad field position.
The combination sealed Indy's fate.
"I think it was really more about us not getting off the field on third down. That really hurt us down the stretch," middle linebacker Gary Brackett said. "We made them punt seven times, but who would have thought they'd have the Tiger Woods of punting?"