Approximately a hundred yards away, in a steady rain that failed to dampen the sellout crowd’s celebratory spirit, Patriots owner Robert Kraft was accepting an eighth Lamar Hunt trophy as AFC champions. His players were high-fiving, hugging, looking ahead.
Super Bowl XLIX, and a date with the Seattle Seahawks Feb. 1 in Glendale, Ariz., beckoned.
Irsay sought perspective.
“Look, that trophy is out there,’’ he said, nodding in the direction of the on-going ceremonies on the field. “There are AFC championship rings out there.
“It’s tough to get that close. It was an incredible year. We’re going to get there.’’
The Patriots reaffirmed their status as the best the AFC has to offer. Their eighth trip to the Super Bowl is tied with Dallas and Pittsburgh for the most in NFL history. They’re seeking their fourth world championship and first since capturing back-to-back Lombardi Trophies in 2003-04.
The Colts? They’re picking up the pieces, and after taking some time to decompress, must determine what it’s going to take to take that next step.
As numbing as the latest loss to New England was – that’s four straight in the Andrew Luck era by 35, 21, 22 and 38 points – the fact remains Luck has led the Colts into the playoffs in each of his three seasons with 11-5 records.
He’s taken them a step deeper into the postseason each year.
That rapid ascension was just difficult to keep in mind Sunday night.
“Tonight it’s hard to feel the appreciation, but it’s there when you take in the whole season,’’ Irsay said. “We’re really disappointed. We knew this was a measuring stick that we wanted to get over, and we didn’t.
“We just didn’t have it tonight and I know how empty that feels. However, we’re not that far away. We’re close.’’
Irsay was asked what’s still missing? How can a team that traveled to Denver and handled Peyton Manning, albeit with a thigh injury that limited his effectiveness, in a 24-13 in an AFC divisional-round game, be so uncompetitive seven days later?
The Patriots led only 17-7 at the half, but had their way with the Colts in the second half. Consider New England’s first four drives after halftime: touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown. It was so easy Tom Brady even tossed a 16-yard touchdown pass to offensive tackle Nate Solder.
By game’s end, Blount had rushed a Patriots’ postseason-record 30 times for 148 yards and three touchdowns.
That after he bullied the Colts for 166 yards and four TDs, two more club postseason marks, in last season’s divisional-round blowout.
“When you get to this level, this championship level, we have to be able to be a tougher team,’’ Irsay said. “We have to be able to stop the run. We can’t turn it over.
“What’s missing is trying to continue to bring in a team that I talked about, which is a really tough defensive team. A team that can run the ball and surround Andrew with that.’’
Like most of his teammates, Luck had a difficult time coming to grips with such a sudden, smothering end to his third season. He suffered two interceptions – that’s 10 in four games against the Patriots – and endured arguably the worst game of his young career. He completed 12-of-33 passes for 126 yards and a career-worst 23.0 passer rating.
“It’s hard to find much good right now, fresh off this game,’’ Luck said, “but very proud to be part of this club. I guess you could say that we took another step, but we had our sights set higher and obviously we’re not there.’’
Reggie Wayne agreed after he saw his 14th season abruptly end. The veteran receiver failed to catch a pass in a second straight playoff game. He not only faces surgery in the near future to repair a torn left triceps, but faces an uncertain future. He’ll soon be a 36-year old unrestricted free agent.
“It’s a tough loss and we’ve just got to find a way not to have this feeling again,’’ Wayne said. “Each year since coach (Chuck) Pagano’s been here, we’ve taken that step. Each year. I believe we’re getting better and better and better.
“But everybody’s got to be all-in. We can’t have anyone on the fence. You’re either all-in or your not. Hopefully we can learn from this mistake and guys can take the season, eve though it was incomplete, for what it was worth. It was a lot of good things this year we can hang our heads high about.’’
Wayne was asked it was too soon for him to consider his future?
“I ain’t even thought about that, bro,’’ he said. “We just lost, man.’’
And lost huge, on a national stage.
Yet Irsay made it clear he’s determined to make certain the latest lopsided loss to New England doesn’t taint the overall direction of his franchise.
“I’ve been in this thing almost a half-century,’’ he said. “I know how these things happen and we can’t just measure this game and say, ‘Oh, miles away.’ Not the case.
“The message is we’ve gotten better. We’ve advanced. We are going to get there with Andrew Luck and this era. It just didn’t happen tonight.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.