FOXBOROUGH, Mass – The hope was things would be different.
Two months ago, playing in front of their home fans at Lucas Oil Stadium, the Colts had a Sunday night tilt with the New England Patriots. Players knew a win in that Week 11 meeting could mean another home contest when the playoffs rolled around.
New England came into Lucas Oil Stadium on November 16 and controlled the line of scrimmage behind a 201-yard running day from Jonas Gray. In the end, the Colts could not stop playing from behind and fell 42-20.
When January rolled around, it was New England hosting the AFC Championship and the blue print seen in Week 11 was back on display for the Patriots.
"We ran into an outstanding football team that played extremely well in all three faces," Chuck Pagano said after the 42-7 defeat.
"They got us really early on. They kind of had us on our heels tempo – situational football they played well – we didn't."
There were two key stretches on Sunday that saw the Patriots seize control.
The first came following the team's trading three-and-outs to start the game.
Punt returner Josh Cribbs misjudged the Patriots punt attempt and New England recovered at the Colts 26-yard line.
Six plays later, LeGarrette Blount punched it from one-yard out for the first of three rushing touchdowns on the night (30 carries for 148 yards).
The Patriots lead grew to 14-0 at the end of the first quarter before the Colts settled into things.
A 10-play, 93-yard drive cut the lead in half with T.Y. Hilton's 36-yard reception sparking the Colts lone touchdown drive. It would be the only catch of the night for the Colts Pro Bowl wide receiver (six targets) as the Patriots once again took away Indy's top playmaker.
A 17-7 halftime deficit gave the Colts optimism knowing that they had controlled the third quarter in each of their first two playoff victories.
This time though, it would be New England who dominated the quarter.
The Patriots would have four drives in the third quarter, all of which ended in touchdowns (the final score coming early in the fourth quarter, after the drive began with 1:10 remaining in the third).
As the lead began to swell, the Colts had no answer with two three-and-outs sandwiched behind an interception in the third frame.
"They did a good job making plays and we didn't," Andrew Luck said after the 42-7 loss.
"It seemed like they were more on the details and we weren't."
The lack of offensive consistency and inability to get off the field on third down (Patriots were 12-of-18) saw the lead snowball.
Being just 60 minutes away from the game's pinnacle and having that abruptly end made for little reflection inside the Colts post game locker room.
The next step in this new era of Colts football was taken this season.
A trip to the AFC Championship game, thanks to winning a road playoff game, continued the steady progression over the last three years.
Reaching the top of the mountain remains.
"It's hard, because it is the last game and you don't have another Sunday to look forward to, to go back to work and prepare and get that taste out of your mouth," Pagano said. "We will try to learn from it. We're well aware of the fact that we need to go to work and find some answers to get over the hump to take that next step, to reach our ultimate goal to try to find a way to win a football game like this.
"Nobody wants to end their season that way, but like I told the team, we'll learn from this, we'll grow from this and go to work to try to make 2015 better than 2014."
Photos from the AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots