It had happened. Again. INDIANAPOLIS — Suddenly, it was like the entire football season never really happened. Like those 13 straight victories, a stretch of excellence nearly unrivaled in history, never happened. Like the chase for the Perfect Season never happened. It was over just when it was supposed to have started, leaving the Indianapolis Colts, the city, and really, all of the NFL in a state of utter incredulity. As Mike Vanderjagt’s field-goal attempt wobbled pitifully off into the blue ether, the scope of the Colts’ 21-18 playoff loss to Pittsburgh came into grim focus, and a day-long out-of-body experience gave way to anger and resignation. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREGift Box shows no rust in San Antonio Stakes win at Santa Anita Another big game. Another big stage. Another spectacular flameout, a meltdown of epic proportions. Seen this movie before? There was 41-0 to the New York Jets in 2003. There was 24-14 in 2004 and 21-3 in 2005, both in New England. And then there was this, the worst of them all, a game Peyton Manning, in particular, may never live down. Even now, the clouds of doubt are gathering around Manning, and the whispers are so loud, they seemed to be artificially enhanced. He can’t win the big one. Didn’t win them in college. Hasn’t won them in the pros. Not the biggest ones. “I cannot argue with the truth,” Manning said later. “I’m not gong to try and counter any points. That’s the fact. It’s certainly not from a lack of effort on my part. I can honestly say that … I’m just going to keep trying. That’s all I can say.” This was, without any question, the most devastating loss in the Indianapolis portion of the Colts’ history. And the case could be made that this was the most horrific loss in the history of professional sports in this area. This one will hurt more than all the others, though, because this was the year. All the planets were aligned. Home-field advantage. A bye month, never mind a bye week. A chance to stay indoors all the way through the Super Bowl. What happened Sunday defies description and proper analysis. Suffice to say, the Colts got their heads handed to them. They were embarrassed. They were revealed, again, as paper tigers. And they even made Steelers linebacker Joey Porter, who ripped their offense as soft earlier in the week, sound like a graduate of Oxford. The quick and simple evaluation goes like this (and please don’t play the “ they-were-rested-too-early” card, which is a copout): They got outplayed, out-hit and thoroughly outcoached, especially on the offensive side of the ball. All day, the Steelers penetrated the gap between the Colts’ center and guard. All day, the blitzes crashed upon Manning like a giant wave. And the Colts never found answers. How about screen passes? Something. Anything to slow the rush. There was nothing. No adjustment. No Plan B. Maybe the Colts were right, after all. It wasn’t the bad weather in New England. They could play just as poorly in perfect conditions. “I can’t explain what happened,” said Edgerrin James. “I really don’t know what to say.” How many chances can one team blow in a single game? They benefited from the Steelers’ decision to go conservative in the fourth quarter. They benefited from the Immaculate Deception, an inexplicable overturn that should have resulted in a Troy Polamalu interception. And they got the mother of all breaks when Jerome Bettis, who never fumbles, lost the ball as he was heading in for the game-ending touchdown. “The football gods weren’t smiling on us,” team president Bill Polian said as his team’s locker room emptied. “The one guy with two bad legs (Nick Harper) picks up the fumble. Anybody else, maybe he goes all the way.” Who would have thought Ben Roethlisberger would make the biggest tackle of the day? This cannot continue to happen to a team built around its offense. Manning has every conceivable weapon at his disposal. A Hall of Fame receiver. A possible Hall of Fame running back. These last four playoff losses, though, that group has scored 0, 14, 3 and 18 points. Nobody wants to rip Manning because he’s been The Franchise since 1998, because he’s meant so much to this community, and because his desire to bring a championship here is absolutely undeniable. Maybe, just maybe, he wants it too much. Maybe, just maybe, he thinks too much in these situations and doesn’t let his talent carry him. It’s not a lack of heart, or a lack of any other notable body parts, but something is missing. Until he finds whatever it is that separates him from Tom Brady or any of the great quarterbacks, the cloud of doubt will hover over him. 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!