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."