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Loss to Pats tough to accept, but Indy took steps forward

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Somewhere between Andrew Luck’s third and fourth interception of the night, it became clear to even the most rabid Colts fan that this team finally had run out of miracles.

No more magical 28-point comebacks like the previous week against Kansas City.

No more magical Robert Mathis strip-sacks that stole the ball and momentum with a swipe of the paw.

No more Donald Brown and T.Y. Hilton playing beyond their years with Pro Bowl consistency.

Most of all, no more Andrew Luck looking like the next Peyton Manning, but rather current NFL interception leader Eli Manning.

It was a humbling night in the cold rain of Gillette Stadium.

The Patriots showed a new generation of Colts what it is like to fall flat on a big playoff stage, with a 43-22 triumph.

Indy came in convinced it would not be like last year, a regular season 59-24 loss. They were very wrong. Upon further review, this was an instant replay.

I doubt if any Pats players muttered “who’s your daddy,” in a game that became chippy at times. But that is only because they didn’t have to. New England owns Indy once again.

Don’t put this loss on Luck, who nobly stepped up and took ownership afterward. This was a team loss.

The Patriots were better in every phase of the game.

To put it bluntly (as in LeGarrette Blount), New England provided the blueprint for what Indy is trying to become — a run-first team that batters opposing defenses to set up play action.

There was little secret what was coming when the Patriots broke the huddle.

On this blustery night, with the conditions dictating a run-first approach, the Colts could not stop it.

Indy was on the wrong side of a record-setting performance. Six touchdowns on the ground engineered by the most successful quarterback of this generation (sorry Peyton). Tom Brady handed off 46 times in one of his most lopsided playoff wins. He has now taken his team to the AFC Championship seven times in 12 years.

On Tuesday, as Colts’ lockers were cleared out and wait-till-next-year talk began, it would be wrong to dismiss the Foxborough debacle too quickly.

Instead, it is a moment to appreciate and reflect.

As dastardly and distasteful as it may be, the Pats are who Indy wants to become.

“We didn’t accomplish the ultimate goal,” Colts running back Donald Brown said, “but there are definitely some positives to look back on.”

While the moment still stings, it also is time to recognize that the Colts are not that far away. Indeed, this team overachieved in a way that two dozen other NFL franchises would gladly take.

With five offensive starters out for much of the season and a work-in-progress defense, the Colts were a football roller coaster ride. The lows were as stomach-churning as The Beast. How is it possible to lose 38-8 at home to the lowly Rams?

The upside, though, was far more memorable. An 11-5 record for a team that many thought would struggle to reach .500 even before team heartbeat Reggie Wayne went down with a season-ending knee injury.

Progress is most often incremental in the NFL and never guaranteed. Just ask Houston, which nosedived from Super Bowl contender to No. 1 draft pick over the course of a season.

“This feeling hurts,” long snapper Matt Overton said after the loss. “Love this team and the direction we are going. Hoisting it will never be easy, but it will happen for us soon.”

That is more than just a post-game rationalization.

There is good reason to be optimistic.

It all starts with Luck. Despite his bumpy post-season, the leadership, ability and mindset are there to take this team to the next level.

Beyond that, there are key decisions to be made. For all the solid moves by General Manager Ryan Grigson, running back Trent Richardson and wideout Darius Haywood-Bay are clearly washouts that have to be addressed.

A run defense that yielded 5.1 yards a carry must be fixed if Indy is to make a jump to Super Bowl contender.

Those are issues that can be resolved as a young nucleus continues to grow.

Let’s remember, these past two seasons were supposed to be a time of rebuilding. Most teams don’t rebuild with the playoff success the Colts have enjoyed.

Remember, only seven teams have made the playoffs each of the past two seasons. That means 25 other “rebuilding” teams already are looking up at Indy.

“We took another step forward,” said coach Chuck Pagano, himself part of that learning process in his first full season. “We’re building a program for sustained success. We made another step in the right direction. Certainly we didn’t want the season to end like it did, but I’m very proud of the guys. We’re going to keep building.”

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