By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — INDIANAPOLIS — There was a definitive sense of loss Monday in the Indianapolis Colts' locker room. But there also was a strong undercurrent of hope.
Saturday's 43-22 loss against the New England Patriots in an AFC divisional playoff game proved the franchise still has work to do to reach its Super Bowl goal. But the fact Indianapolis beat each of the NFL's three other conference finalists — the Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers — shows how close Indianapolis is to joining the league's elite.
"The sky is the limit for this group," Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said. "I really believe we came very close. We were one of eight."
Pagano was referring to Indianapolis' place in the NFL's quarterfinals, one step beyond last season's finish.
Despite a rash of injuries — especially on offense — the Colts matched their 11-5 record from a year ago and scored an epic come-from-behind victory against the Kansas City Chiefs in the wild-card round for the franchise's first postseason win in four years.
It all came crashing down during the fourth quarter in New England. Indianapolis entered the period trailing 29-22 but gave up a pair of rushing touchdowns to LeGarrette Blount — who finished with 166 yards and four scores on 24 carries — and turned the ball over twice.
Second-year quarterback Andrew Luck threw four interceptions against the Patriots to bring his two-game playoff total to seven. But the 24-year-old also threw six postseason touchdowns and led the second-biggest postseason comeback in NFL history.
The Stanford graduate still is processing Saturday's loss and said he isn't sure how long it will take him to put the game behind him.
"I think it just sort of happens when it happens," Luck said. "I don't think I'm quite over it yet. It's good motivation, too. Motivation and a learning tool. I know in my mind I got to be able to use that game as a learning tool and say how can I get better from that experience? I don't think I'm over it yet."
The Colts used last year's playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens as fuel to get back to the postseason and advance this season. If the team is going to take another step forward in 2014, it will need to get some improvement from within.
The return of a host of injured players is a good place to start.
Cornerback Greg Toler will undergo surgery for a groin injury that cost him nearly half the season. His recovery is expected to last four weeks, putting him on the field in plenty of time to start organized team activities April 21.
Running back Vick Ballard said his knee injury has healed well enough for him also to take part in OTAs, and tight end Dwayne Allen expects to be medically cleared after his hip injury late next month. He hopes to be on the field by the time training camp begins this summer at Anderson University.
Much of the offseason speculation will center on the status of wide receiver Reggie Wayne. The 35-year-old tore his anterior cruciate ligament during the Week 7 win against Denver and missed the rest of the season.
Questions already have cropped up as to whether he can return to a level near his Hall of Fame-caliber career standard.
"I can tell you this, Reggie Wayne, as I'm speaking in the third person, has never lacked confidence," he said. "I'm very, very, very confident I can come back better than I was."
Some Colts won't come back at all.
Cornerback Vontae Davis, safety Antoine Bethea, running back Donald Brown, kicker Adam Vinatieri and punter Pat McAfee are among 14 players scheduled to become free agents when the new league year begins March 11.
Each of them expressed an interest in returning to Indianapolis. But each also understands the business of the NFL dictates not all of them will receive new deals.
One thing everyone in the locker room shares is a healthy belief that the best is yet to come.
"This team has such a bright future with (Luck) under the helm," McAfee said. "Indianapolis got so lucky to have Peyton (Manning) for over a decade and now Andrew hopefully for the next 20 years. The Colts are going to be very good for very long, and it's a lot because of that guy."
The offseason figures to be devoted toward building a stronger offensive line to protect Luck and improving the defense to keep games close and give the quarterback more chances to win them at the end.
Many players said success would be measured this season only by a trip to New York for Super Bowl XLVIII. So it stands to reason the team's expectations will be just as high next year.
"That's what you guys want me to say, and that's the pressure you want me to put on myself and this entire coaching staff and this organization," Pagano said before breaking into a sardonic laugh. "Yeah, that's the only reason we all got up and came to work today is to get better and give ourselves an opportunity to hoist the Lombardi."