BALTIMORE – Earlier in the week, Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano was asked about the expectations the Baltimore Ravens take into every season. He held his hand above his head.
“They come in and they set the bar right here,” Pagano said of his former team.
That's where the Colts go now.
The bar is raised.
This everything-is-gravy season is history, put to rest by the Ravens' 24-9 dismissal of the Colts in their AFC Wildcard playoff game on Sunday at M&T Stadium.
What a run. It was incredible and improbable, from the comeback against the Green Bay Packers after Pagano left the team to fight leukemia, to the thriller in Detroit, to 11 wins and a playoff berth. The Colts entered the season with no expectations – Peyton Manning and most of his friends were gone – and they became a contender. We cheered for Pagano's recovery, one of those heartwarming stories that rise above X's and O's.
“We've got the foundation, the foundation is set,” Pagano said. “We said we were going to build one on rock and not on sand, because you can weather storms like this and you can learn from times like this. The disappointment and the feelings they all have right now, that's what's going to propel us to 2013.”
Now there's no turning back, no more playing with house money.
Colts owner Jim Irsay, who made the tough decision to blow up the roster and start over with Andrew Luck and a stable of other rookies, knows the free ride is over. He knows when you make the playoffs one year, nothing less will be accepted the next. In fact, more will be expected. Playoff wins, for starters. That's motivation. It's also pressure.
“The future, to say it's bright is an understatement,” Irsay said. “We have work to do to get back into it, to get ready for 2013 and we couldn't be more excited. Quite frankly, it's difficult. Now we're playing against an 11-5 watermark. We never expected that going into the second year.”
Certainly, there's every reason to believe the Colts can improve next season. General manager Ryan Grigson, touted as executive of the year by Irsay, will go searching for more players. The offensive line needs reworked. The secondary has some leaks. There's a question of what to do with Dwight Freeney. (Probably say goodbye.)
This year's rookies should improve. Luck went down throwing against the Ravens, attempting 54 passes, completing 28 for 288 yards but never finding the end zone. He'll be better with a year under his belt and an upgrade in pass protection.
Three Adam Vinatieri field goals were all the Colts could muster against the Ravens. Some dropped passes contributed to missed chances. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, admitted to a local hospital Sunday morning, was missed for his brashness if not his play-calling. Who's to say? Maybe he would have called back-to-back Mewelde Moore runs to shortchange a drive, too. I wonder, though.
“The four-point swing between touchdowns and field goals is big,” running back Vick Ballard said. “We made three field goals and missed one. Turn those into touchdowns and it's a different game.”
The difference in this final game came down to the difference between a team knowing its era is closing and one that knows its era is in its infancy. The Ravens were certainly inspired by linebacker Ray Lewis' final home game, even if all the dancing and histrionics seemed silly from the viewpoint of those who just chronicled Pagano's fight for his life.
Lewis had 13 tackles, could have had an interception, and spurred his defense in classic fashion. Joe Flacco, the quarterback who reaches the playoffs every year, made the most of his completions, hitting 12 passes for 282 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Bernard Pierce and Ray Rice put up 173 yards rushing.
The better team, the more experienced team, the more complete team, won.
So the Colts feel the sting for a day, then it's full speed ahead.
“I stood in front of the team and told them after the game, just remember this feeling,” wide receiver Reggie Wayne said. “Remember it. It's not a good feeling. It's up to us whether we want to continue to feel like this or do we want to feel better? So, hopefully, everybody understood that, and hopefully we can move forward.”
The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and Luck went down fighting. Even more importantly, he went down without excuses. He never points the finger at anyone but himself, offering that he made mistakes that contributed to the lack of touchdowns. He wouldn't even consider referencing what I'd call the pivotal point of the game, when Donnie Avery dropped a pass on a drive the Colts needed to make a final push, trailing 17-9. Vinatieri's field goal sailed wide right and the Ravens went down and scored.
Vinatieri said the Colts have a great quarterback to build with moving forward. He's an expert on the topic, having played with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
“A lot of young guys did a great job,” Vinatieri said. “Unfortunately, if you lose your last game, it just doesn't feel good.”
The Colts overachieved this season, soaring way beyond expectations.
Next season, already here in some sense, will have high expectations written all over it.