Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri celebrates after he hits a would-be game winning 50-yard field goal. (Andy Lyons | Getty Images)

After a painful sixteen game regular season — rife with injuries, frustrating slumps, and a lack of identity — the Colts 2010 effort officially ended Saturday night after a last minute drive that was capped by a Jets field goal. What makes the loss difficult to take — even though most fans realized the team’s playoff berth was an admirable accomplishment in its own right — is that the Colts should have won.

The initial fan reaction to the game has been all over the board, with fingers pointing in different directions. Some argue that the defense is responsible for the loss because they allowed the Jets to keep the ball for a vast majority of the second half, and yielded over 150 yards on the ground.

Others blame the Indianapolis special teams units for making costly mistakes and allowing long returns, specifically Antonio Cromartie’s long return on the final drive of the game that allowed the Jets to have a short field for a field goal try.

Still others insist that Coach Caldwell is primarily responsible for calling an ill-advised timeout with less than 30 seconds to go, which allowed the Jets offense to get their heads together for a back-breaking first down play that made shaky place kicker Nick Folk’s job much easier.

The reality is, all of these fans are right to a degree, but none of them — even taken together — completely explain how the Colts managed to let this game slip away.The trouble started for Indianapolis when their recent offensive struggles continued in the first quarter. Since Austin Collie went down for the year the passing game has simply not been the same. This is not an indictment of the individual efforts players like Pierre Garcon, Jacob Tamme, and Blair White made to get the high-powered offense moving, but the fact is that the Jets defense had an easier job without Collie on the field.

The most frustrating part of Indy’s early game slump was that they were not due to an inability to execute, failure by offensive linemen, or inconsistent hands by Colts receivers — all themes throughout the season. Third down play-calling kept the Colts from getting a first down in their first three possessions.

In two of the three occasions the plays were ill-advised. In the other, Blair White either ran his route too deep or Peyton Manning threw his pass too short. In either case, the play was ineffective and the result was a Pat McAfee punt.

While Manning was finally able to hook up with Pierre Garcon halfway through the second quarter for Indy’s only touchdown, it took a big play and not consistency to get the job done. Marching down the field was not something the Colts offense was able to do for the entire first half.

Adding insult to injury, depending on the whatever perspective fans take, head coach Jim Caldwell threw a challenge flag following the punt after the Colts second possession. The replays on television seemed rather clear that the ball never touched Antonio Cromartie, meaning that the Colts were unable to get the ball back and the team surrendered its first timeout. This timeout could have been useful later, as will be discussed.

On the other side of the ball, the defense did its job by keeping the Jets from getting onto the scoreboard. In fact, when New York was threatening in the red zone, cornerback Justin Tryon intercepted Mark Sanchez to give the offense a shot to extend their lead going into the half with 45 seconds and two timeouts.

Uncharacteristically, Caldwell, Christensen, and Manning chose to run the ball on the first play, did not take a timeout, and were content going into the half without trying to get the 40 or so yards it would have taken to get Adam Vinatieri into field goal range. One has to wonder whether a third timeout would have changed this decision and given Indianapolis a chance to put the Jets in a large enough hole to impact their second half game plan.

Instead, the Jets took the kick off to start the second half out to the 37-yard line, a 41-yard return that gave New York a short field. Eight of their ten plays were runs –their only completion on the drive was a 20-yard pass to tight end Dustin Keller — which ultimately yielded a touchdown, a one-yard run by Ladainian Tomlinson, to tie the game.

For the first time all night, on the ensuing possession, the Colts were able to put together a sustained drive, marching the ball down the field from their own 26-yard line to the New York 28-yard line. This drive was successful, in that Adam Vinatieri hit a 47-yard field goal to give Indianapolis back the lead. It was unsuccessful, in that the Colts were deep in Jets territory and again called an unsuccessful run on third-and-one.

After Rex Ryan and the Jets watched the Colts offense move the ball steadily down field for the score, it must have been clear that the best option was to put together a meticulous and time consuming drive for a score to keep Manning and the Indy offense off of the field. After their success running the ball in their first possession of the second half, their plan was clear and they put it into action.

New York held the ball for ten minutes, taking up the final third of the third quarter and first third of the fourth quarter. The drive ended in another touchdown, gave the Jets back the lead, and put the Colts into a “must score” scenario. If the offense was unable to score on their current drive, the Jets just proved that they could play keep away effectively enough to make winning an unlikely outcome.

The Colts offense picked up where it left off, marching the ball down the field systematically. In just over five minutes, Manning drove from the Indianapolis 19-yard line to the New York 15. The questionable third-down play calling continued when the Colts chose to run the ball with Dominic Rhodes on third-and-seven after chewing up almost the entire play clock, seemingly intent on scoring a touchdown and forcing the Jets into a time crunch to score. Rhodes was only able to gain one of the seven yards and the Colts were forced to kick a second field goal.

This put the ball back in the Jets possession with 4:37 left to play and necessitated a Colts defensive stop. On the first set of downs the defense stepped up, forced the Jets into a third and long, and after Santonio Holmes dropped a pass, gave the Colts enough time to put the game away with a final scoring drive.

WAIT. NO. Taj Smith — the Colts special teams demon over the final four weeks of the season — ran into the punter, drew a flag, and gave the Jets enough yards for a new set of downs. The defense had to return to the field to stop the Jets once more. They did just that, and New York punted the ball away for a second time.

Manning marched the Colts offense from its own 20-yard line to the New York 32 in one and a half minutes, placing the game on playoff kicking legend Adam Vinatieri’s right foot. This 50-yard kick was two yards shy of Vinatieri’s career long and would decide the game. From the moment the ball hit Vinny’s foot there was no doubt, it was perfect. The Colts took a two-point lead.

With 53 seconds remaining, Pat McAfee boomed a kick to the New York 1. All the Colts had to do to likely seal the game is make a final special teams stop in coverage and give the Jets a long field. Instead, Cromartie tore off a 47-yard return and gave Sanchez and gang green’s offense the ball with incredible field position.

The Jets were not able to get a whole lot going. With 36 seconds left Sanchez handed the ball to Tomlinson for a two-yard run, centering the ball on the 32-yard line. It seemed very clear that the Jets were content with attempting the 50-yard field goal for the win.

The reason this is so clear, for those who might not understand, is that the Jets did not call a timeout once Tomlinson was downed. This meant the Jets were going to let the clock run and use their final timeout to stop the clock with only enough time for the field goal try. Place kicker Nick Folk, who is very inaccurate outside of 45-yards, would have to take what the team could give him.

Instead, for reasons that are not entirely clear, Colts head coach Jim Caldwell called timeout. This gave the Jets the chance to consider their options, allowed them to save the timeout and take another shot downfield if they wanted, and forced the defense into a stop the next play at all costs. If the Jets gained even two or three yards on a run it would have been an ill-advised call because it would make the kick easier for Folk.

After gang green huddled up and discussed their move on the sideline, they took advantage of the size mismatch between Braylon Edwards and Jacob Lacey to gain 18 yards. The field goal was 40 percent shorter, well within Folk’s range, and almost certain to cost the Colts the game as the Jets could let the clock run down to only a few seconds to put the game away. Folk connected and the Colts lost the game 17-16.

This review of the game should make numerous things stick out. First, the Colts offensive play-calling on third down was dreadful. Instead of getting touchdowns, Indianapolis had to settle for field goals on three of their four scoring drives. Second, the special teams units cost the Colts time, put a great deal of pressure on the defense, and made the Jets job much easier. Two of New York’s scoring drives started at their 37 and 46-yard lines, respectively. Third, Jim Caldwell’s challenge in the first half and timeout in the second half were both ill-advised. One of the calls made it much more likely that the Colts would lose by allowing the Jets to take another shot. The other call cost the team a timeout that may have otherwise been very useful to add to a seven point lead with 45 seconds remaining in the first half. Finally, there is no doubt that the Colts defense surrendered twice the rushing yards they would have liked and that the Jets were able to use this weakness to control the ball for much of the second half. However, it is VERY hard to blame the Colts defense for the loss when they allowed only 17 points. Like it or not, the Colts will win very few games if they are unable to put up more than 17 points.

Individual performances that deserve praise are those of Joseph Addai, Kavell Conner, Justin Tryon, Peyton Manning, Jeff Linkenbach, Jacob Tamme, and Pierre Garcon. Each of these players had a tremendous impact in the game, did what they could to help the team win, and have no reason to hang their heads for the outcome. On the other hand, Gary Brackett was invisible for much of the game, Dominic Rhodes struggled, Blair White looked nervous and a bit out of sync with Manning on numerous occasions, and the Colts special teams coverage units were horrific.

There are a lot of reasons the Colts did not beat the Jets on Saturday night. None of those reasons will make fans feel better about the outcome. Indianapolis had no business losing the game after Vinatieri’s 50-yard field goal all but sealed it. Still, blaming one timeout, blaming one long return, blaming one ill-timed special teams penalty, or blaming the Colts run defense is not enough. This was an uncharacteristic game at the worst time for Indianapolis.

One positive thing to take from this season, however, is that the Colts fought their way into the playoffs when very few teams in the history of the league could overcome the adversity this team has had to overcome. Indianapolis has tied the longest streak of consecutive playoff seasons at nine straight.

The Colts have a very talented, very deep ball club with a lot of players who will be returning from injury. They will have a “good” draft position compared to what they are used to. They can get their stars locked up, trim some fat, and focus on the team’s few weaknesses to come back fresh for another run.

Do not buy into the yearly foreshadowing of Peyton Manning’s closing window. He will be back, ready to go, and this team will be a front runner once again to get deep into the playoffs, and maybe even be the first team to host the Super Bowl in their own stadium. Keep your heads high Colts players and fans, the 2010 disaster is over.