Yes, the Colts had a 12-4 record and a nine-game winning streak heading into the postseason. But at one point in the year, Indianapolis had struggled to get the season started with a 3-4 mark.
Injuries and medical issues affecting key players — quarterback Peyton Manning, center Jeff Saturday, strong safety Bob Sanders, middle linebacker Gary Brackett, cornerback Marlin Jackson, offensive guard Ryan Lilja — forced the team to use rookies and backups in major roles this year.
Manning won his third MVP, but it didn't come easy
For the most part, those backups and rookies stepped up their play and performed well. Their performance on the field gave Indianapolis enough time to get those veterans — Manning, Saturday, Sanders — back and into a regular rhythm.
The Colts were able to fight back and make a late run into the playoffs. But this was not a vintage Indianapolis team. The running game struggled all year. While Manning earned his third NFL Most Valuable Player award, the passing attack was not as crisp and explosive as it has been in previous seasons.
Converting on short yardage situations, usually on third down, didn't come as easily as it had before. Late in the season and on into the playoffs, that became a big issue for the Colts.
Defensively, Indianapolis was inconsistent in run defense although it did improve as the year progressed. Getting opposing offenses off the field on third down, allowing teams to extend their possessions, proved to be a season-ender. That was very much in evidence against the Chargers, especially on the game-winning drive in overtime.
For Indianapolis to make a run at an eighth consecutive season with 10 or more wins, those problems will have to be corrected. The Colts continually found ways to win games in 2008, but they also put themselves into situations that eventually proved costly in the long run.
"(The 2008 season was) different in the way we had to do it and basically playing must-win games for two months and seeing our guys function in that situation, it was great. And the disappointing thing is you work that hard, you put yourself in position and then you don't come through when you have that opportunity in the playoffs. That's what's disappointing," Colts coach Tony Dungy said.
"But it was good to see. We had a lot of young guys contribute, a lot of guys step up and make plays that helped us win games and it wasn't just our normal star players, but a lot of guys. And that is great to see. As a coach, that is rewarding."
But getting better in all areas is what the Colts are intent on doing this off-season.
"We have to use that feeling (after the San Diego loss) to build on next year and to use that for incentive in the off-season, to come back to work and get ourselves a little bit better. I told (the team) that we're not going to make wholesale changes. We don't think there's things that need to be fixed about the team. We just need to continue to improve," Dungy stressed.
"Most of our improvement will be made by the guys that are on the team now. Them getting better is how we're going to improve. We'll try to add people through the draft, predominantly, and hopefully those guys can give us a spark. But most of the improvement will be the guys that are here. So that's what we have to focus in on, and they'll get a couple of months off and come back in March to start doing that."