The Colts, in typical fashion, fell behind big early and then attempted to claw their way back into the game but couldn't quite close the gap this time and collapsed down the stretch as New England slammed the door shut. The loss showcased the fatal flaws evident in the Colts all season but also highlighted the hope for the future in Indianapolis.
All in all, it was a successful season for Indianapolis, which earned its first playoff win and the first division title of the Andrew Luck era. Yet there is room for improvement, which will be the focus of fans and analysts for the next seven months.
Coming out of Foxborough, however, what are the biggest lessons to learn going forward? Find out the final group of takeaways for the 2013 season.
Four interceptions is never good. Seven interceptions over two playoff games seems like something from an Andy Dalton horror film.
But despite his mistakes, Andrew Luck showcased his unlimited potential on Saturday, throwing for 331 yards and two touchdowns while nearly bringing the Colts back yet again. After a week of anointing Luck as the future G.O.A.T., however, we were reminded that he's still a second-year quarterback, and one that has more weight on his shoulder than any other young quarterback in the league.
He can stand to be more patient, more consistent in his scanning of the field and less forceful. He'll need to put in countless hours in the offseason with his young receivers, building a rapport and timing that will lead to offensive consistency. He still misses some pre-snap reads and could use improvement in his accuracy.
But the future is bright in Indianapolis, as Luck dropped jaws with dimes down the field to T.Y. Hilton and LaVon Brazill to get the Colts back into the game. Luck showed off his phenomenal skills in the pocket as well, continuously evading pass-rushers all night. If the Colts can just get some talent around him, Luck will be among the league's elite signal-callers in no time.
When looking at Colts that have a bright future, T.Y. Hilton is right behind Luck. Despite being targeted by Bill Belichick and the Patriots defense, Hilton finished with four catches for 103 yards on Saturday, leaving him with 327 for the postseason. That's a new Colts franchise record for receiving yards in a single postseason, beating Dallas Clark's previous record of 317 in 2006. It's also the 11th-most receiving yards in NFL history in a single postseason.
Hilton showed off both his hands and speed on Saturday, making a few fingertip catches along with getting behind the defense on multiple occasions.
While he may not be a prototypical No. 1 receiver in terms of size, Hilton is showing that he can be a No. 1 receiver for the Colts going forward. The Colts still need another starter, but Hilton is a long-term piece for Indianapolis.
I thought the Colts had learned during the last few weeks of the regular season.
I was wrong.
The Colts' use of Stanley Havili, Trent Richardson and the power-run game dropped over the last five weeks, and the offensive efficiency rose. It was no coincidence.
But the Colts were back to their old ways against New England, as Havili and Richardson played far too many snaps and the Colts started telegraphing running plays again after they closed the gap to a one-score difference.
Combine that with one of the most poorly called goal-to-go situations I've ever seen and some too-conservative decisions on fourth down, and it was not the Colts coaches' finest hour in terms of play-calling.
This is a half of Bad Pep Hamilton. He'd gone away from this "Havili is a playmaker" crap, and now right back to it for some reason.— Collin McCollough (@cmccollo) January 12, 2014
The good news for Indianapolis' offense is that help is on the way in 2014, and we're not even talking about potential free agents or draft picks.
Reggie Wayne, Dwayne Allen, Donald Thomas and Vick Ballard should all be back next year and should provide a big boost to the Colts. Wayne is Luck's safety blanket, Allen is a phenomenal blocker and red-zone target, and Thomas is a key part of any of Indianapolis' run-blocking plans.
Ballard may or may not be a key piece in 2014, depending on how he rebounds from his knee surgery, which can be career-altering for running backs.
Regardless, the point is that there is some serious firepower that the Colts were held without this year, and their presence was certainly missed. While you can't blame any team's success or failure on injuries, Colts fans should definitely be looking forward to these players' return in 2014.
The Colts throw to Havili, Saunders, Doyle + interesting, but unproven or underwhelming WRs WAY too often. Missing Dwayne/Wayne.— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) January 12, 2014
It was the second straight game in which the Colts allowed 40-plus points defensively, and this time they failed to record a single turnover.
The lack of turnovers has been an issue for Indianapolis since last season, when it was 27th in the league with just 15 forced turnovers. The Colts were middle of the road this year with 25 but forced just one turnover in two playoff games.
Indianapolis desperately needs some defensive playmakers, especially when it comes to its pass rush. With Mathis the only consistent pass-rusher and no coverage players at safety, the Colts rarely were able to rattle top quarterbacks to force mistakes. Against bad quarterbacks, turnovers happened. Against good ones, not so much.
The Colts want to build a defense so Luck doesn't have to do everything. The biggest need is another star to make critical plays for Indianapolis.
The Colts wanted to focus on being able to stop the run this year, so they signed players like Ricky Jean Francois, Aubrayo Franklin, Erik Walden and LaRon Landry, while trading for Kelvin Sheppard. The Colts paid top dollar for those free agents, but it didn't seem to make much of a difference Saturday.
LeGarrette Blount ran for 166 yards and four touchdowns on 24 carries, and the Patriots ran roughshod over the Colts defense all night. The Colts were 22nd in the league in DVOA against the run, per Football Outsiders, so it's not like this was a one-night occurrence.
The Colts can't afford to target something like run defense so specifically and then not have it make a difference. It's going to be too harmful long term if it continues. In 2014, the Colts have to widen their focus.
Run the ball, stop the run Oops: Colts out-rushed 234 to 69. No excuses for the defense. Stayed relatively healthy all year.— Bob Kravitz (@bkravitz) January 12, 2014
The Colts started the season with great defensive play on third down. Indianapolis was fifth in the league through the first eight weeks of action. But, as the season wore on, so did the Colts' play on third down. The Colts were just 22nd in the league over the final nine weeks.
On Saturday, Tom Brady did whatever he wanted on third down, as the Patriots converted on 61 percent of them.
Along with turnovers, the Colts defense has to be able to get off the field on third down. They couldn't against the Patriots, and so the Colts' comeback never quite finished.
2013 will be viewed as a success in Indianapolis. With the devastating injuries they faced while also overcoming a horrific trade and a young roster, winning a playoff game and the AFC South is an accomplishment.
Despite their flaws, all major coaches and players should be back in 2014. That's how it should be. Chuck Pagano and Pep Hamilton have some offensive philosophy problems that need fixing, but Pagano is a great leader while Hamilton can be creative and brilliant at times. The Colts don't need a major coaching shakeup in 2014, they just need their coaches to continue to learn and grow.
The key players will be back as well for Indianapolis, as well as some new talent. Overall, this squad will have another chance at a playoff run in 2014, with another year of experience under its belt. Here's to hoping it's enough to be in the AFC Championship Game.