Loss is stunning, but not unexpected

Indianapolis has experienced disappointment before, so it wasn’t a major shock to the system when the Colts failed to make it to the Super Bowl. It was what a lot of people expected. Despite their excellent play throughout the season and in earlier playoff games, it almost seemed inevitable that they would choke when it came to the big game.

Sure, some people had faith the team would pull off an upset, but they were like the people who believed the initial election results in 2000, when TV was telling us Al Gore had won Florida. It sounded good, but there was no way such a result would be allowed to stand.

While the Patriots dominated on the field and deserved to win, the big losers of the day were not the Colts but instead the ordinary people who’d hitched their fortunes to the playoff bandwagon.

You saw them everywhere last week; the people who bought into the notion that the Colts would become champions and, by extension, make us all champions as well. I don’t know why the self-worth or self-confidence of some people is closely allied with the performance of a sports team, but it is.

At the Sevendust concert Sunday night at the Egyptian Room, half the audience walked around in an even more zombie-like state than is normal for a metal show. You could see the stunned disappointment on their faces.

But realize a few things, depressed and defeated Colts fans: You wouldn’t have gotten any extra money if the Colts had won. You won’t be docked pay because they lost. Your life is exactly the same as it would have been, except that there’ll be another who-cares Super Bowl played in two weeks.

And it was actually funny to watch the TV news stations on Sunday night. The same Ken-and-Barbie news teams who’d filled our airwaves all week with pointless Colts stories suddenly had to fill time by eulogizing the team and its season.

When a team wins, the public’s appetite for postgame analysis is insatiable. When they lose, people want to forget it as quickly as possible. If the Colts’ loss has a bright side, it’s that we will now be spared hours of idiotic reports from our local TV news mannequins.

Many people in the city doubtlessly came to work Monday in a sour mood. A playoff run like the Colts’ can energize a city. It can bring people together and fill them with optimism. It can give people the belief that their many years of rooting for losing teams will finally pay off.

No doubt some of the city’s rich people had already booked hotel rooms in Houston for the big game. Some even dared to dream of the downtown parade that would follow a Colts Super Bowl victory. Those people who are already talking about next year’s Colts team are as foolhardy as the Chicago Cubs fans who believe that a championship is only one more season away.

I’m not trying to be a buzzkiller here, but the reality is this: the Indianapolis Colts will never be Super Bowl champions, not in our lifetimes and not in your children’s or grandchildren’s, either.

First of all, they won’t get the chance. The team will likely move away no matter what. Even if we build a billion-dollar stadium that hovers over the ground, the team will split at the earliest contractual opportunity.

That could be in 2007 or it could be in 2027, but the Colts are going to leave. The sooner you get accustomed to that fact, everything else becomes clearer. The team is like an adulterous spouse who left his wife to move in with his mistress. That’s generally not a recipe for a successful long-term relationship.

Secondly, it could be several years, if ever, before the Colts again reach the level of the playoffs they did this season. There will be a major shakeup in the off-season and half the squad will be lucky to return next year. Those who remain will be subject to being cut at a moment’s notice.

And, thirdly, time will continue to take its toll on the Colts’ key players. While Peyton Manning is only now hitting his prime, the rest of the team suddenly looks suspect in terms of longevity. How many more years can Edgerrin James play without serious injury? How many more playoff runs will the great Marvin Harrison be around to witness?

Aside from all of that, the Colts’ run this year was remarkable. The team played as well as it could for most of the season, until it all came crashing down on Sunday.

The line on Manning has always been that he can’t win the big games. He proved them wrong in Tampa, in Kansas City and elsewhere this year. But when it counted the most, he played his absolute worst.

Harrison was eliminated as a threat early on. Dwight Freeney barely showed up to play.

It was a sad ending for a team that had showed promise. And New England gave the Colts plenty of opportunities to get back in the game. Instead of being ahead 21-14 with two minutes left in the game, the Patriots should have been ahead 42-14.

It was a classic opportunity for Manning to prove his greatness. I’m sure I’m not the only one who expected him to drive the team down the field and into the end zone with just a few ticks on the clock. But it wasn’t to be. Four incomplete passes gave the ball back to the Patriots, who iced the game with a field goal with under a minute to play.

Manning is a future Hall of Fame player, no doubt. But you couldn’t have proved it by his performance on Sunday. He was 23-of-47 for 237 yards and one touchdown, a too-little, too-late toss to Marcus Pollard. The loss has to raise troubling questions about the team.

And so the Colts’ Super Bowl dreams come to an end as well as the dreams of the average folk who thought a championship was headed our way. It’s not surprising that our dreams would be dashed in this way. Indianapolis is not a city that rewards dreams. It’s a city where dreams go to die.

Our young people flee at the earliest opportunity. Those of us who remain do so because we’ve struck a deal of some sort with the city, or because we’ve come to terms with Indianapolis’ propensity to kill one’s dreams.

The Colts had their best season since 1968. Theoretically, they could have several more bites at the championship apple. They will certainly be back next year with determination. And while I don’t think they’ll ever make it to the big game, they could well prove me wrong and make another strong run next season.

That’s the beauty of sports, the fact that there’s always another season and another chance for redemption. After a big loss, it’s natural to be sad. But the fact that our sports team choked in its biggest game ever doesn’t reflect poorly on anyone except the team.

Just because a city likes to kill dreams doesn’t mean it’s wrong, or even foolish, to dream. The excitement and wonderment that surrounded the Colts’ playoff run shows us just how rewarding it is.

Maybe next time, our faith will be well-founded.