DENVER – This was the next peak on the mountain.
Before Sunday, reaching such a spot was foreign to so many Colts.
Ascending to a destination that steep was going to take a performance that no team had done in Denver this season.
Against nine Pro Bowlers, including a quarterback that is in the pantheon of the greatest of all-time, the Colts next step was going to be no easy task.
The blueprint that was drawn up and executed on Sunday though was exactly how Chuck Pagano has built this monster.
-A Colts defensive unit turning Denver's explosive offense into an ordinary shell of itself.
-An offense that leaned on their young star quarterback, before grinding out a fourth-quarter, eight-minute drive to clinch their first road playoff victory since 2007.
-Sure, the names of Luck, Hilton and Davis played at their Pro Bowl levels but "Next Man Up" guys in Reitz, Herron and Newsome embodied the head coach's philosophy.
Put all the ingredients together and the Colts are back in the AFC Championship for the first time in five seasons.
"It was a step that we needed to take," Pagano said after the 24-13 victory.
"We just needed to take the next step."
Pagano's mantra of "Don't judge. Sixty Minutes" was tested from the start on Sunday.
An opening possession three-and-out from the Colts saw their early hole grow deeper when Denver scored a touchdown.
Down 7-0, in a venue no team had left victorious in this season, heads were not hung low.
The Colts got back into it with efficient offense, and a timely second-quarter turnover.
Denver's offense, which finished the season second in the NFL at 30.1 points per game, never found the same rhythm they had to start the game.
It was the type of defensive performance that teams who win in January seemingly always produce.
There were questions coming into the postseason of what the Colts could do when they were forced to take their act on the road against a proven quarterback.
They answered those emphatically on Sunday with necessary stop after necessary stop, sending those inside of Sports Authority field to the exits earlier than they envisioned.
"Coming in here and beating a team of this caliber—obviously there wasn't anybody out there, as far as the critics go and the pundits, I don't think anybody thought we could come in here and get this job done," Pagano said. "But we got a group of guys, players and coaches who obviously felt differently. They played extremely well."
As the Colts locker room began to head towards their buses late on Sunday, Reggie Wayne propped up against a table and reflected on what the team has been through in this new era.
Wayne was a free agent back in 2012, but once he heard reassurance from Pagano about the immediate goals of the franchise, No. 87 knew postseason runs in Indianapolis weren't going anywhere.
"We reloaded. We didn't rebuild," Wayne said correcting a reporter with a smile on Sunday about the Colts plans in 2012. "That's what was told to me when I came back, 'We are reloading.' I don't have time to rebuild (laugh).
"It's special. It is. These guys in this locker room, they fight hard every week. They give everything they got. I couldn't be more proud of my teammates for laying it on the line for each other."