INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – This one’s going to hurt for awhile, certainly for a few weeks.
Think of a punch to the gut. It pushes the air out of your lungs, leaves you gasping, seeing stars, wondering what just happened.
On a chilly, snow-swept Saturday evening at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium, the Indianapolis Colts and their four-plus-month journey reached a conclusion that might not have been a surprise – the Chiefs after all were the AFC’s No. 1 seed and led by wunderkind Patrick Mahomes and his slew of offensive toys – but was a shocker nonetheless.
“Certainly not the start we wanted,’’ Andrew Luck said, “not the middle we wanted, not the finish we wanted. A little bit of a tough pill to swallow, but no shame from the guys in that locker room.
“Heads are up high.’’
As well they should be, the suddenly-it’s-over 31-13 divisional playoff loss to the Chiefs notwithstanding.
At some point – sooner, not later – Luck, Frank Reich, Chris Ballard and everyone else in the organization will shake off the effects of Saturday’s comprehensive face-plant and appreciate what was accomplished along the way.
They’ll realize Luck’s comeback from January 2017 surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder is complete.
They’ll realize – this time for sure – the offensive line is fixed and only should improve as guard Quenton Nelson and tackle Braden Smith build on impressive rookie seasons.
They’ll realize rookie linebacker Darius Leonard is a cornerstone piece and Kenny Moore II an emerging star for coordinator Matt Eberflus’ legit defense.
They’ll realize T.Y. Hilton is tougher than a lot of us gave him credit for, and Dontrelle Inman is worth re-signing in the offseason.
They’ll realize the type of culture that proved so invaluable during the Peyton Manning-led 2000s is taking shape on Luck’s watch.
They’ll realize that while Saturday was difficult to digest, the future is bright. The 53-man roster includes 23 players with two years experience or less, including 11 rookies.
Reich was a first-year head coach and flanked by a pair of first-time coordinators (Eberflus and Nick Sirianni).
The Colts followed Reich’s understated yet unquestionable lead from that 1-5 start to 10 wins in their last 11 games. They reached the playoffs for the first time since 2014. They went on the road last week and dominated the AFC South champion Houston Texans.
Reich kept his young team’s attention throughout. Players wore T-shirts that mentioned getting “1% better’’ every day.
“The secret of the foundation is the constant striving to get better as a team, to get better as a football player within that team, to get better as a unit within the team,’’ Luck said. “That’s a great group of guys in that locker room, and a lot of them are young.
“It was fun to watch Darius Leonard run around, and Kenny and those guys in the secondary and Clayton (Geathers), and the guys up front on the O-line and Marlon (Mack). Also, he’s not young, but T.Y.’s a baller, man. What that guy’s been through with that ankle injury and his ability to perform at a top, top level is special. I certainly love playing with him.’’
Luck endured a football-less 2017 as his rehab hit a snag, but returned to his three-time Pro Bowl form. His 39 touchdown passes trailed only Mahomes’ 50, and he set career bests in completions (430), attempts (639), completion percentage (67.3) and passer rating (98.7).
“It’s been a rewarding season in many ways and this is not the ending anybody in that locker room wanted, myself included,’’ Luck said. “We wanted to go 1-0 this week and continue this journey.
“I am very thankful I can play football. I’m thankful to be in the locker room, able to run on the field and throw it to my friends. It was a rewarding season, a fulfilling season.
“I think I improved as a quarterback, very much so.’’
As Reich addressed his players in the locker room, disappointment undoubtedly hung in the air. And it emanated from every corner of the room.
The offense opened the game with four three-and-outs and its initial first down came with less than 2 minutes remaining in the first half against the Chiefs’ No. 31-ranked defense. It was 0-for-9 on third down after leading the NFL in third-down conversions (48.6 percent) and failed to score any points despite at reaching Kansas City’s 20-yard line three times. The only offensive TD – Luck’s 29-yard strike to Hilton – came with 5:37 play.
The defense was undisciplined and always seemed a step behind as Mahomes and the Chiefs settled into a 24-7 halftime lead. Kansas City’s first three possessions: touchdown, touchdown, field goal. The Chiefs had 274 yards and 18 first downs in the first 30 minutes. The defense committed five encroachment penalties and safety J.J. Wilcox added a horse-collar penalty.
Special teams? There was highlight material – Najee Goode’s block of a Dustin Colquitt punt that Zach Pascal recovered in the end zone for a second quarter TD – but some truly unbelievable events. Not only did Adam Vinatieri ricochet a 23-yard field goal off the left upright – it was the shortest miss of his 23-year career – but he pushed a PAT wide right after being 70-for-70 in the postseason.
“It was one of those days,’’ Reich said. “That was indicative of we were going to make mistakes in all three phases.’’
Even so, Reich wasn’t about to allow his players to exit Arrowhead Stadium and prepare for the offseason without reminding them of all they had accomplished.
“It didn’t finish the way we wanted it to,’’ he said, “but that’s going to be true for 31 teams. Really proud of the journey that we had. That’s what we talked about (in the locker room).’’
He compared the season – falling into the early hole, digging their way out of it, reaching the playoffs – to climbing Mount Everest.
“What we said in there is ‘It’s hard to climb Mount Everest your first time you go to climb it,’’’ he said. “We didn’t make it all the way to the top this year, but we made it up that mountain pretty fair.
“Just like in mountain climbing, you may not make it up the first time, but you learn the path and get up there. Even though you didn’t get all the way you wanted to get, we learned some things along that journey, along that climb that will stick with us as we move forward from here.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.