INDIANAPOLIS –Each post-season 11 of 12 teams go home with heartbreak.
Such is the case with the Colts after a 43-22 loss in the divisional round at New England.
Like New Orleans hours earlier, Indianapolis failed to capitalize on a Wild Card triumph to move on toward its ultimate goal.
The quest ended in Foxborough, where dreams ended after the 2003 and 2004 seasons. This time it came with a different cast and though thoroughly disappointing, it will fortify the foundation.
"As painful as it is, the experience is what it's about," said Jim Irsay after his team exited the post-season upon reaching the divisional round for the first time since 2009. "The experience is invaluable. It hurts and it's a hard time, but these types of moments are how you get better."
Among things that are tough is how a seasonal strength became a weakness. The Colts not only set a franchise record for the fewest turnovers in a season (14), it shattered the mark of 17 done twice previously.
A team that had seven games without giveaways had eight in two playoff contests, and a season that had a plus-13 turnover ratio melted into a truncated post-season run at minus-seven.
In winning its last three games, Indianapolis led for more than 50 minutes in beating Houston and Jacksonville and pitched shutout defense for the final 56 minutes in a 23-7 win at Kansas City.
Against the Chiefs last week, Indianapolis seized its first lead with 4:21 left, and then after coming back from 28 points down.
Chuck Pagano knew a better break from the gate was necessary at New England, but after 79 seconds his club trailed by seven and never could even matters.
"It's (coming back) extremely difficult, especially in a divisional game and on the road against a good football team," said Chuck Pagano. "We've been able to do it many times before, but we knew we couldn't dig ourselves a hole."
Indianapolis twice trailed by 14, then cut the deficit to 21-15 early in the third quarter. An Adam Vinatieri field goal narrowed the gap to six, but it came after Indianapolis could not convert a first-and-goal opportunity from the four.
Seconds later, Tom Brady zipped a 53-yard completion to start an ensuing possession that led to a touchdown.
Showing the incredible talent and promise seen so often in 34 prior games, Andrew Luck countered with a long scoring strike to LaVon Brazill to cut the deficit to 29-22 with 20 minutes to play.
The Colts produced consecutive three-and-outs defensively (one with a solid fourth-and-one stuffed rushing attempt), but early in the fourth quarter allowed LeGarrette Blount to burst 73 yards for a score, one of the plays that typified the club's night.
"When you get back into the game, you have to stay in," said Robert Mathis. "No more slip-ups. We have a habit of digging ourselves holes and clawing back. We were unable to do it. You have to find a way."
The two-game run had a little of everything for the Colts. T.Y. Hilton had 224- and 103-yard reception outings. Brazill's two scoring snares at New England matched Hilton's total against Kansas City and placed them with three other Colts who had multiple scoring receptions in a playoff game.
Mathis had a strip-sack in each game, and the Colts scored a first-ever playoff safety.
An errant second-quarter punt snap sailed over New England punter Ryan Allen's head and stopped inside the Patriots' five. The Colts' pursuit could not tackle Allen, who also could not secure the ball and the resultant fumble went through the end zone.
A chance for seven points resulted in two. It was another instance of an opportunity that did not add up for the Colts.
"They beat us fair and square, and we didn't deserve it," said Luck, who had four interceptions and said afterward it was too soon to look at the season's successes that came under adverse conditions. "I'm disappointed in myself – I can't commit that many turnovers and have a chance to win against a good team like this.
"I'm proud to be a part of this team – guys never quit, guys never stop fighting. We had our chances and we just couldn't get over that hump."
Pagano has presided over consecutive 11-win seasons, becoming just the eighth coach ever to do that to start a career.
Like others, he will get past the pain, and he sees a fortified foundation just as does Irsay.
"We took another step forward," said Pagano. "We're building a program for sustained success.
"We made another step in the right direction. Certainly we didn't want the season to end like it did, but I'm very proud of the guys. We're going to keep building."