INDIANAPOLIS --- The visiting locker room at Gillette Stadium after Sunday's AFC Championship Game is just one of 31 you'll find at some point in the NFL season. It's just an even worse mood, because it's one of two that came closer than the rest to reaching the Super Bowl without getting there.
For the Colts, this was a tight-knit locker room, one with a culture many NFL teams wish it could duplicate, but the reality began to creep in immediately following the 45-7 loss to the Patriots.
"I've been around a lot of locker rooms, a lot of guys," said 12-year veteran defensive end Cory Redding. "This was a very close-knit group this year. We all know that faces are going to change. Numbers are going to change. People are going to ship-in, ship-out. That's part of the NFL. We just enjoyed every second, every minute of the family we had this year. That's what it's all about."
Redding would break many of his pre-game speeches this year by asking his teammates to say "brotherhood" on three. Perhaps that's why it was so hard for fellow defensive lineman Art Jones, a teammate of Redding's both in Indianapolis and Baltimore, to talk about that aspect of the loss.
"It hurts me more that I couldn't get it done for them," said Jones of veterans like Redding, wide receiver Reggie Wayne, and linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, as he fought through tears to share his emotions. "It's tough to get here to win. The clock is ticking for a lot of these guys. Nothing's promised for anyone. I apologized to C-Redd, a great leader on this team. Our good wasn't good enough to get it done for him. I don't know how much time I got left or any guys, Reggie, D'Qwell, all the great leaders we have on this team. I don't know how much time they got left. It hurts me more that I didn't get it done for them."
Chuck Pagano told his team after the game he knows it hurts badly but believes the Colts will hoist that Lombardi after taking another step this season in reaching the AFC Championship Game.
"Each year since Coach Pagano has been here, we've taken that step," said 14-year veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne. "I believe we're getting better and better and better, but everybody has got to be all in. You can't have anybody that is kind of on the fence. It's either you're all in or you're not."
In the immediate aftermath though, the hurt is what resonated for many of Wayne's teammates and not getting him and other veterans to the final game of the season.
"There's a lot of players we wanted to take to the Super Bowl. We wanted to take Cory Redding. We wanted to take Reggie. We wanted to get Robert (Mathis) there and so on," said defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois.
"Those guys have been around the league a long time. You want to win these types of games for them," said cornerback Greg Toler. "You never know when it's your last play or your chance to get here again. It's hard to be at the door and not capitalize like we didn't. This game was for those guys."
That's why some will even say losing the conference championship game is worse than losing the Super Bowl, and for a Colts team with many players who broke out in their 3rd season, like quarterback Andrew Luck, wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, and tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, they weren't revising the expectations after Sunday.
"It still feels as if we fell short," said Allen. "No longer are we a young team. We're in our third year. This is the year that players either put up or shut up. We were able to put up in the regular season, but you don't get remembered for the regular season. You get remembered for what you do in the postseason."
So how long will it take to get over a loss like this? 11-year veteran safety Mike Adams may know better than anybody after also losing in the Super Bowl with Denver last season.
"364 days until we're back here again."