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Colts players left stunned, disappointed by abrupt end to AFC playoff hopes, 2023 regular season

The Colts were still collectively processing Saturday night's 23-19 loss to the Houston Texans, which knocked them out of the AFC playoff picture and ended their season. 

The end of the 2023 Colts season was mercilessly abrupt.

Running back Tyler Goodson was open on fourth and one deep in the heart of Texans territory with just about a minute to go. A fresh set of downs followed by a touchdown would not only win the game, but all but assuredly send the Colts to the playoffs.

Quarterback Gardner Minshew II threw the pass. Goodson dropped it. Both players, after the game, accepted responsibility for the incompletion.

But regardless, the Colts' season effectively ended right there. The season this team was – and should be – so proud of, in which they took mouthwash to the chaos of 2022 and were 15 yards from a playoff berth, came to a swift, cruel end.

Texans 23, Colts 19.

"It just feels so surreal," defensive end Tyquan Lewis said. "Just the mindset of the team, the confidence going into this game, I feel like we were all a confident group. For it to come down and end like that, I didn't have an answer. I didn't know what to think."

Less than 30 minutes after their season ended, players in the home locker room at Lucas Oil Stadium hadn't begun to process what happened. This wasn't the time for attaboys and big picture perspective. Emotions were high. Eyes were red. Faces were stone.

How did this season end like that?

"I just still can't believe it's over," defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. "My mindset was, we're going to win this game and move into the playoffs and give ourselves an opportunity in the big dance. I'm still processing."

These feelings weren't based on one play. Every player acknowledged the Colts' season didn't _really _come down to the Minshew-to-Goodson incompletion. There was more everyone could've done to prevent Saturday night from swinging on that swing pass, whether it was in Week 18 or earlier in the season.

"You can't blame it on one guy, you can't blame the play call," center Ryan Kelly said. "There were opportunities to score throughout that entire game we didn't capitalize on."

"We weren't good enough today, I wasn't good enough today," linebacker Zaire Franklin said. "Tired of the feeling, to be honest with you. It felt like we had the team to make a run and we just came up short today."

The Colts made critical plays at times in 2023 and didn't execute in other moments. Those other moments are what the team, collectively, now has to digest in the coming weeks and months while they watch the Texans compete in the postseason.

"It came down to a couple of plays," running back Jonathan Taylor said. "That's playoff football. That's playoff football. When it comes to crunch time, you got to make those plays. We got to make those plays. Got to make them. You have to. That's playoff football. Playoff football are the teams who make the most plays. We didn't make enough."

Every player in that Colts locker room believed they'd beat the Texans, whether it was in the lead-up to the game or during those 60 minutes of game action on Saturday. Taylor's breathtaking 49-yard touchdown and Minshew's jump-pass two-point conversion to tight end Mo Alie-Cox tied things up after halftime, and after trading field goals, the Texans got in the end zone – but kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn missed the PAT, meaning the Colts just needed a touchdown and a kick to take the lead as time melted off the clock.

And as Taylor powered the Colts inside the Texans' red zone with under 90 seconds left, there was no wavering in the huddle or on the sideline.

"It's a culmination of a season you think's going to keep going," Kelly said.

That's what made Saturday's loss so difficult to swallow. Two years ago, the fate of the Colts' season was sealed long before there was no time left on the clock in Jacksonville. There was time to process and digest on the sideline. This year, the Colts turned the ball over on downs and a few minutes later – poof, the 2023 season ended.

"I don't feel like it really hit me, to be honest with you. It's over," Franklin said, pausing a beat to process the finality of those last two words. "It wasn't what — every part of my being and everything I believe and thought knew we were going to win today. And came up short."

There will be plenty of time for post-mortems, for 30,000-foot perspectives and, ultimately, excitement for what 2024 could bring – especially with quarterback Anthony Richardson re-entering the fold. The guys who will be back next year will figure out the lessons from this game later.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, as the Colts shuffled out of Lucas Oil Stadium for the last time until late summer, the prevailing emotions were shock, disbelief and bitter disappointment.

"All the highs and lows of the season and all the adversity we fought through, for it to come down like that," Franklin said, "it doesn't feel like the ending it was supposed to have."

View in-game highlights from the Colts versus Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium on January 6, 2024.

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