KANSAS CITY, Mo. —Frank Reich likens it to climbing Mount Everest.
The Indianapolis Colts in 2018 didn't quite make it all the way up the mountain, but the lessons learned from an otherwise extremely successful first season under Reich has the team excited about its future prospects.
That was the feeling Saturday night after the Colts fell to the Kansas City Chiefs, 31-13, in the Divisional Round of the AFC playoffs. While the Chiefs next week will play host to an AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium for the first time ever, Indianapolis flies home immediately disappointed in the outcome from the game, but optimistic as it heads into the offseason.
"I just love these guys," Reich told Colts.com's Caroline Cann after the game. "I mean, the way fought all year, how far we've come in this journey. That's what we talked about in there. We talked about climbing this mountain, and we didn't make it all the way up. But what we said is it's hard to get up Mount Everest the first year — it's hard. But we made it up there pretty far, and that's a real credit to the guys."
Considering the start the team had to its season, the fact that the Colts even found themselves in the position to play in a Divisional Round playoff game is amazing in itself.
The Colts headed into their Week 7 matchup against the Buffalo Bills tied for the worst record in the NFL at 1-5. After a 37-5 whooping of the Bills at Lucas Oil Stadium, the team started rolling — and didn't really stop until Saturday's game against the Chiefs.
Indianapolis won 10 of its final 12 games down the stretch, including a Week 17 win-or-go-home showdown against the Tennessee Titans, on the road, to clinch the team's first postseason berth since the 2014 season.
The Colts also took on the AFC South Division champion Houston Texans in the Wild Card Round, and came out on top with a dominating 21-7 road victory.
"We were just determined to keep fighting," said second-year Colts cornerback Kenny Moore II, who had two sacks against the Chiefs on Saturday. "We were back in a corner at 1-5, but just had the perseverance to keep fighting. The chemistry came along throughout the season. Each day at practice, we just took practice serious, and we just tried to correlate it to the game."
The Colts head into the offseason with plenty they know they need to improve upon if they want to be able to climb that mountain even higher in 2019 and beyond. General manager Chris Ballard and his personnel staff have already started the process of determining how this roster will be tweaked and improved upon in the coming months.
But the foundation for success is certainly there, and includes:
— A head coach in Reich whose rally cry of trust, teamwork and toughness — as well as a 1-0 approach each and every week — never lost its luster.
— A franchise quarterback in Andrew Luck who was able to come all the way back from shoulder surgery to play perhaps better than ever in 2018.
— An offensive line that led the league in fewest sacks allowed, just one year after allowing the most sacks in the NFL — quite the turnaround.
— Two rookie studs on both sides of the ball in linebacker Darius Leonard and guard Quenton Nelson who in 2018 became the first rookie teammates named First-Team All-Pro since Chicago Bears Hall of Famers Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers.
— A touchdown-scoring machine at tight end in Eric Ebron and an unquestioned top-10 wide receiver in T.Y. Hilton.
— Led by coordinator Matt Eberflus, a sound defensive system and philosophy that should only get better with time and more pieces.
— A 2019 NFL Draft class that, at this point, should be up to nine picks for the Colts (and could once again be into double digits when it's all said and done).
— Plenty of cap room for the team to play with in free agency, as well as to take care of its current crop of players.
"You know what? What a memorable season," Reich said. "What we talked about was we learned a lot as a team this year about trust, we learned a lot about toughness and we learned a lot about team. And those are things that we'll take with us. It's hard this year because the team never stays the same, but those are things that will carry into next year to help us get up that mountain next year."