INDIANAPOLIS – The Colts were back in the playoffs, capping a season that defied logic to some outsiders but what served as a target for believers wearing blue and white.
Chuck Pagano had used the term, "Build the Monster," throughout the spring and summer. In the fall and winter, his team carried out the mission by producing an 11-5 record.
The Colts were returning to Baltimore having won nine of their last 11 games and doing so in a year where almost 70 players were used.
Forty-two different players started games, and the Colts were heading into the Wild Card round with a roster that had 16 returning veterans. Sixty-two percent of the roster had no more than three years league experience. Thirteen players were on injured reserve, and 28 of the 53 active players never had seen playoff football.
Pagano was getting reacquainted with matters, too, quipping, "We got production from guys that I still don't know. They all think their first name's 'Kid.' (Jamaal) Westerman comes off the field after a sack and I go, 'Hey, nice job, kid.' A bunch of them think their first name's 'Kid' and answer to it quite easily."
The Colts were facing a playoff battled-tested Ravens team that was the only bunch in the league that had won playoff games in four straight seasons.
Baltimore would be a hostile environment. Reggie Wayne, through experience, knew as much.
"A lot of these guys are so young, they don't know the history," said Wayne. "A lot of guys didn't know anything about the Mayflower leaving in the middle of the night. We kind of hipped them up to game, told them what to expect when we get there. Hopefully, it won't be such a culture shock when they get there.
"I told the receivers, 'Trust me. No one out there in purple is going to be your friend. Just be prepared for whatever, prepared to hear whatever. Just have tunnel vision.' It's going to be a tough game, and that's what the playoffs are all about."
A look at the Wild Card Playoffs:
AFC WILD CARD PLAYOFFS: BALTIMORE 24, COLTS 9
The Colts fought valiantly, but the effort came up short. The Ravens were able to gain the victory, the first in a three-step process that led them to the Super Bowl.
The teams exchanged fumbles in the first quarter in each other's territory, while the Colts held the ball for 11:33 of the period.
The game stood at 3-3 when Baltimore took possession at its 37 with 2:25 to go in the half. Joe Flacco converted a third-and-four near midfield, then found Ray Rice for 47 yards on a short pass. Vonta Leach capped the drive with a two-yard run with 50 seconds left. Andrew Luck guided the Colts 46 yards to set up Adam Vinatieri for a 52-yard field goal at the gun that made the score 10-6.
Baltimore assumed control over the final 30 minutes. Flacco teamed with Aquan Boldin five times for 145 yards and a score in the second half. He hit Dennis Pitta on a 20-yard score 6:34 into the third quarter for a 17-6 lead. Vinatieri added a 26-yard field goal when the Colts could not capitalize from the Baltimore eight near the end of the quarter.
When Vinatieri missed from 40 yards out with 11:44 remaining, Baltimore marched for the final score – an 18-yard Flacco-to-Boldin connection. The Colts twice reached Ravens territory afterward, but could not score.
"(I'm) very, very proud of this team, what they've overcome, what they've accomplished," said Pagano. "Go all the way back to day one, the turnover that happened, the change, they went out and did it, what everybody said they couldn't do and they refused to live in circumstance. They chose to live in vision.
"We didn't do enough out there today. We didn't make enough offensive plays. I told them, 'When you walk out of here, you hold your head high and be very, very proud of how you played this game, how you've represented this organization.' We talk about legacy a lot and trust, loyalty and respect and things like that. And they did that. They should be very, very proud of themselves. And again, how they carried themselves and how they represented the 'shoe.' "
The finality of playoff loss stings even for a veteran-hardened team, let alone one that was so young.
"I (said), 'Remember this feeling, because we've got the foundation.' The foundation is set. We said we were going to build one on rock and not on sand, because you can weather storms like this and you can learn from times like this. The disappointment and the feelings they have right now, that's what is going to propel us to 2013. That's what's going to motivate us to come back and work even harder. These are hard lessons. We've got a bright future. It'll make us all better in the end."
Quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen had to sub for offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who was taken ill and hospitalized on the morning of the game.
"Obviously, it's not ideal. It's 'Next Man Up.' Whether it's player or coach, that's been the theme all season," said Andrew Luck. "We understand Clyde's called a lot of games. He did a great job today. (It's) no excuse, by any means.
"We had our opportunities, but we couldn't get it done. We made too many mistakes and left too many plays out there. It was great to make the playoffs, but we can't make the mistakes that we made today to advance."
Turning point: The contest stood at 10-6 in the opening seconds of the third quarter when Baltimore had a third-and-19 from its nine. Flacco hit Boldin for 50 yards. Though the drive produced no points, the play flipped field position and signaled a big half for the duo. A chance for the Colts to cut into a 17-9 deficit with 11:49 left failed with a missed 40-yard field goal. Baltimore scored 2:30 later for a 24-9 lead.
Moment to remember: Luck stepped under center to open the contest and handed off to Donnie Avery for 15 yards. He targeted Coby Fleener, T.Y. Hilton and Avery for one yard before the team punted. None of the players touching the ball on the opening drive had been with the Colts prior to 2012. The significance was the changing of the guard in Indianapolis. A franchise that tied a league mark with nine straight playoff appearances from 2002-10, that won seven division crowns from 2000-09, that set the NFL's best regular-season decade winning total (115) and won two conference championships and a world championship was back in post-season action after a one-year slump. The face of the team had changed, from the general manager down through the majority of the coaching staff and player ranks. A new era arrived in 2012.
Note: The Colts were the seventh team since 1967 to make the playoffs when having had the top overall draft pick. Eleven Colts possessions started at an average of their own 19-yard line, with the best drive start being their own 29. The Colts had fourth-quarter drives stall at the Baltimore 18, 22 and 37. The Ravens had eight plays that gained at least 20 yards and four that topped 40 yards, while the Colts had one that gained 25 yards. Baltimore out-gained the Colts in return yards, 117-0. Indianapolis did not convert three red-zone chances into touchdowns, while Baltimore did three-of-five times. The Colts faced 20 third downs, while Baltimore averaged 23.5 yards per completion. The Ravens gained 7.9 yards per snap, compared to the Colts' 4.8. Baltimore was credited with three sacks and 10 QB hits. Reggie Wayne had nine receptions for 114 yards. Wayne (92, 1,242) ranks second in NFL career playoff receptions (151, Jerry Rice) and fourth in yardage (2,245, Rice; 1,315, Michael Irvin; 1,289, Cliff Branch). Andrew Luck was 28-of-54 passing for 288 yards, becoming the first top overall draft choice (QB) to start a playoff game as a rookie. His yardage ranked second-most by a rookie (335, Sammy Baugh, 1937).
*Quote to note: *"In 40 years, I haven't seen (a season) like it. I really haven't. We've had the greatness. I felt the Lombardi Trophy in the rain in Florida, so many different things that we've done through the years. This year was incredible. It was special and unique in so many different ways. … To go through the adversity with injuries and a coach fighting a life-and-death illness, and then have the coach that was holding it together ending up in the hospital (Sunday), what can you say? There's not much you can say except if adversity builds greatness and strength, then we just added a lot of adversity in our bank. … All of a sudden, we're playing against an 11-5 watermark." – Jim Irsay