The dream season is over in Indianapolis, but that doesn't mean the Colts have reason to hang their heads.
They accomplished far more than anyone thought possible and produced one of the most memorable campaigns in franchise history.
While there has been much talk about whether Indianapolis was really as good as their record, there's every reason to believe that even if they weren't, they soon will be.
Ardent Colts fans took exception to the discussion about many of the leading statistical indicators illustrating that the Colts weren't actually a quality football team. They claimed that 11 wins should speak for themselves, despite the fact that they came against the easiest schedule in football.
Ironically, those same indicators can now be looked to for reasons for optimism for the future.
The Colts' loss to Baltimore revealed once again that Indianapolis does not have a quality defense or offensive line. While those were hardly secrets, there is reason to expect improvement in 2013.
No, the Colts weren't really a classic playoff-caliber team; they were, however, legitimately improved over 2011 by four Pythagorean wins. That's a significant jump. To get to where they want to go they need to make a similar leap in 2013 to overcome the effects of what is certain to be a much more difficult schedule.
The three key avenues for improvement for any team are the draft, offseason coaching and free agency.
General manager Ryan Grigson's team arrived a year early, and that will have a slightly chilling effect on his ability to get top-shelf players in the draft. Still, given his success in 2012, fans can expect a modest influx of quality players.
The Colts have gaping holes in the defensive secondary at both corner and safety and at every position on the defensive line. The team also likely needs at least three to four new offensive linemen and could use upgrades at wide receiver and running back as well.
Grigson can continue taking the best available player, comfortable with the knowledge that his team has so many needs he can't possibly go wrong.
The young team will get plenty of coaching as well. Chuck Pagano is an excellent defensive coach and teacher, and he ought to be able to aid in the development of players already on the roster. Additionally, the offense should continue to evolve and gel as rookies transition into veterans in the offseason.
The Colts also have a tremendous opportunity to upgrade their rickety roster via free agency. Indianapolis has the most free cap space in football and will need to spend liberally to upgrade the street-level players they are rolling out as starters.
The temptation will be for Indy to make a splash by signing big-name stars like Jake Long to bolster the offensive line, but this would be unwise. The Colts have so many weaknesses, that if they can merely replace replacement-level starters like Cassius Vaughn with even average talents, it should vastly improve the team.
Offensive line will be a top priority, as none of the players Grigson brought in the offseason did even passable jobs. Andrew Luck absorbed more than his share of abuse this season, and the franchise must do a better job of caring for their biggest asset.
Indianapolis may have to say goodbye to All-Pro pass-rusher Dwight Freeney, whose production level and price tag likely won't intersect for another season on the Colts roster. Punter Pat McAfee will be a top-level re-sign for the Colts, but most of the other free-agents-to-be are completely expendable.
The Colts may also be faced with the task of replacing offensive coordinator Bruce Arians in the offseason. Arians has been connected with head coaching searches, meaning his time tutoring Luck could soon end. Perhaps a vertical offensive coordinator with a strong pedigree like Norv Turner could be a good fit.
Ultimately, the player who will most have to improve for the team to repeat their playoff berth in 2013 is Luck himself. Peyton Manning's quantum leap from year one to year two lifted the 1999 Colts to a division title, and Luck will have to make a similar jump for Indy to return to the postseason.
The Colts may have had a frustrating afternoon and a suspect path to the postseason, but there's every reason to believe they'll be playing meaningful games in January of 2014.