INDIANAPOLIS — The champagne would have to wait until closer to midnight after the Indianapolis Colts' 22-13 New Year's Eve victory over the Houston Texans, but that didn't stop the players from celebrating with one another after wrapping up the 2017 season with an ever-elusive win.
Wrapping up a roller-coaster 4-12 season, the Colts, like they had done during the entire year, prepared all week and fought for one another, their coaches and their fans, this time with the ability to finish — something that had haunted the team so often throughout 2017.
"That was the right thing to do," Frank Gore said about finishing the season, and Sunday's game, strong. "A tough year and a lot of things didn't roll our way and a lot of close games. I wish we were getting ready for next week."
Rather than securing a postseason spot, the Colts on Sunday clinched the third-overall pick in in the 2018 NFL Draft, but that didn't stop Gore, who ran for 100 yards on the day and became the fifth player in NFL history to reach 14,000 career rushing yards, from sharing his fondness for his teammates and their resiliency.
"I will say this group of guys are special," Gore said. "I take my hat off to all the young guys. They (kept) fighting, even these last couple when we are out there just playing to finish strong for our coaches. I am very proud of this group."
Left tackle Anthony Castonzo, who reflected on his frustration after a season of so many close calls and near-misses, was also happy to end the 2017 season on a high note.
"That feeling in the locker room, that winning feeling is something we haven't had in a while," Castonzo said. "Obviously, the season didn't end up the way we wanted it to, but at least it's good to go out on a win."
Castonzo and his fellow linemen didn't just pave the way for Gore and rookie running back Marlon Mack, who scored on a tough one-yard run to put the Colts up 14-13 midway through the third quarter, but also set up Indy's first touchdown of the day, according to tight end Jack Doyle.
Doyle was wide open working the right flat and took in a six-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jacoby Brissett to put his team up 7-3 on the opening play of the second quarter.
"I thought the play was going to work," said Doyle, who became only the second Colts tight end of all-time to get to 80 or more receptions in a season. "Great play design by (offensive coordinator Rob) Chudzinski and then executed by the O-line, and Darrell (Daniels) and Kamar (Aiken) did a great job selling the run. Same with Jacoby and Frank, so it was the guys around me that got me so open."
The locker room never seemed to waver in its belief in one another and continued to take the cliché, but necessary, approach of one day and one game at a time — even as they battled through a multitude of injuries, a blizzard and trying to get new players, veterans and rookies alike, up to speed very quickly on both sides of the ball.
Which made Sunday's victory even sweeter.
"It was no win for this person or that person, or let's do this so this person can get recognition," Brissett said during his postgame press conference. "It was just we want to win for us and end the season off on the right note.
"We all were emotional; we didn't want to end our season like this," Brissett continued. "The joy of winning is so hard, like he said it's so hard to win in this league. I know it's easy to write a story about a loss but the best stories are when you win. And the way we won today, throughout the adversities and the bad things that have happened to us and being close in so many games to finally finish one."
Gore also spoke for his teammates in recognizing the fans that endured too many close losses but stood by their team regardless.
"It was great, especially for the fans," Gore said. "These fans were with us from day one, no matter what. Each week, things didn't go our way and they are still here. It was great to win this last game in front of our fans."
Castonzo, like he did so often during the season, put the win and the entire season in perspective before leaving Lucas Oil Stadium for the last time this year.
"2017 hasn't ended yet," Castonzo said late Sunday afternoon, now with an eye on that night's New Year's festivities. "So I'm just going to enjoy the rest of tonight."