FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Andrew Luck couldn’t have sounded more disappointed.
Sure, they took the next progressive playoff step by reaching Sunday’s AFC Championship Game. But after losing 45-7 to the New England Patriots in such a one-sided playoff dismissal at Gillette Stadium, the eliminated Colts were nothing short of exasperated to comprehend what had happened.
It was as if they were trying to say, “What’s the point?”
New England sure knows that answer. It’s getting to the Super Bowl. And that’s where the Patriots are headed in two weeks to face the NFC Champion Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX at Glendale, Ariz.
And the Colts?
“It’s hard to find much good right now, fresh off this game,” Luck said, “but very proud to be a 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.”
And who better to remind them of this reality than coach Bill Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots? The Colts have lost four playoff games at this venue since 2004, all by double digits, by an average of 21.5 points, including the last two postseasons.
Most of the Colts’ names have changed during that time. But Brady and Belichick are the formidable constants on the other sideline.
Just based on the scores of these Patriot games, scaling that mountain has deteriorated to the point that it seems as if the Colts are trying to climb Mount Everast. They lost by 10 in 2004, by 17 the next year, by 21 last January and by 38 this dreadful, rainy night.
“They did a good job of holding all of us in check tonight, really,” Luck said.
No truer words could be spoken. Luck completed just 12-of-33 passes for 126 yards without a score and two interceptions. A 23 passer rating was easily the worst of his 54-game NFL career, and more amazing still, he wasn’t sacked once. That’s how thorough the Patriots were in blanketing Luck’s targets.
That’s why it would be unfair to pin it all on the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback. As expected, the Patriots locked down No. 1 receiver T.Y. Hilton, who caught only one pass for 36 yards. That single catch, not surprisingly, enabled the Colts to drive to their only score.
Beyond that, there wasn’t much of anything there.
The defense got run over — again — as the Patriots amassed 177 yards rushing, 148 of those by LeGarrette Blount, who scored three touchdowns and set a playoff franchise record with 30 carries. The Colts couldn’t stop him.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady bided his time and methodically took apart the Colts with touchdown passes to fullback James Develin, tight end Rob Gronkowski and offensive tackle Nate Solder. Brady completed 23-of-35 passes for 226 yards.
He was sacked once and threw one interception, but it was not near enough for the visitors, who were unable to replicate their stunning performance a week ago of shutting down an injured Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos 24-13 on the road.
“I have no idea what their scheme was,” said Colts defensive tackle Arthur Jones, “I just want to hold my head high. I fought as hard as I could, but obviously it wasn’t good enough. We’ll be back. We have to remember this moment and how we feel.”
Problem is, they experienced this feeling last postseason, too. And while the Colts have progressed one playoff round farther in each of their three seasons during the Chuck Pagano era, this team couldn’t exit thinking they were anywhere closer to the ultimate goal.
“Nobody wants to end their season that way,” coach Pagano said, “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.”
The Colts made it easier for the Patriots from the outset. Josh Cribbs muffed a punt and the Patriots punched it in for a touchdown. Adam Vinatieri missed a 51-yard field goal and the Patriots scored another touchdown.
When Colts rookie Zurlon Tipton scored on a 1-yard run in the second quarter, a 14-7 deficit hinted at the possibility of a competitive game. But it was not to be. Not by a long shot.
The Patriots added a field goal before halftime, then kicked it into overdrive with three third-quarter touchdowns. This game was decided long before the home team enjoyed a 38-7 advantage entering the final quarter.
“It just seemed like they wanted it more,” Allen said.
“It seems like the reoccurring theme every year,” he added. “I really felt like we were at a point collectively where we could take that next step. I thought we grew up and were coming up here to take the next step and get a big victory. I guess I was wrong.”
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.