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updated: 1/13/2014 8:15 PM

Luck sees bright future after playoff loss

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  • Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) stands with his team during the closing minutes of Saturday's playoff loss to the New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass.

    Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) stands with his team during the closing minutes of Saturday's playoff loss to the New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass.
    Associated Press

Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS -- Andrew Luck watched the game tape one more time Monday morning.

While it didn't change anything that happened in Saturday night's frustrating playoff loss at New England, it did help Luck head into the offseason with a bit of optimism.

The Colts, he figures, are off to a good start. If he can clean things up in the postseason, well, the future looks even brighter for one of the league's youngest teams.

"It's good motivation and it's a learning tool. I've got to look at it as a learning tool," the newly clean-shaven Luck said after throwing four interceptions last weekend and seven in the playoffs. "I think offensively we got better. I think with guys coming back (from injuries), hopefully we can keep taking steps forward. I think we really improved as an offensive unit."

In two NFL seasons, Luck has presided over some historic feats. After engineering a stunning nine-game turnaround, from 2-14 to 11-5 and a return to the playoffs in 2012, he faced the challenge of a tougher schedule. Luck made it look easy.

Indy won 11 regular-season games and this time captured its first AFC South crown since the Peyton Manning era. Luck became only the third Colts quarterback since John Unitas in 1971 to win a playoff game, joining Manning and Jim Harbaugh.

It wasn't just that Luck and the Colts (12-6) went deeper into the playoffs and pulled off the second-greatest comeback in postseason history, rallying from a 28-point second-half deficit to beat Kansas City 45-44. Indy beat also three teams -- Denver, San Francisco and Seattle -- that are still playing.

The Colts did all that despite making a major change, going from a vertical passing game to a power-running offense.

Luck threw fewer times for fewer yards, but his completion percentage went up, his touchdown total remained steady (23) and the number of sacks and interceptions each dropped by nine. He worked without having his favorite target, Reggie Wayne, for the second half of the season; and without his top two running backs, Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw, his top tight end, Dwayne Allen, or left guard Donald Thomas since September.

Wayne, Allen, Ballard and Thomas all expected to be healthy for training camp. Coach Chuck Pagano said Wayne is even ahead of schedule on his recovery from a torn ACL in his right knee. The Colts are also expecting more from running back Trent Richardson, the No. 3 pick in 2012 who was acquired in a September trade.

Pagano can't wait to see what the Colts will look like with all of those guys on the field.

"If we go back to work and everybody gets 1-2 percent better at their craft and what they do, and you combine all that ..." Pagano said, pausing. "Again, we didn't reach our ultimate goal. We're going to keep chasing it. We always will. That will never change."

Plenty could change between now and September.

Seven players who started at New England are slated to become free agents. That list includes running back Donald Brown, safety Antoine Bethea, cornerback Vontae Davis, punter Pat McAfee and kicker Adam Vinatieri. The Colts are expected to have roughly $31 million under the salary cap, enough room to re-sign some of those key players and still fill the defensive holes that allowed the Chiefs and Patriots to score 87 total points in the playoffs.

Offensively, they're likely to continue seeking help along the offensive line to protect their franchise quarterback, and perhaps add another receiver.

But if the Colts are going to attain their biggest goal -- hoisting the Lombardi Trophy -- the most important piece may be Luck himself.

"I tried to start thinking about the season and all I can think about is this past game against the Patriots and turning the ball over," he said. "But I'm proud to be a part of this team. Proud to get to the playoffs. But that wasn't our goal. We wanted to win a Super Bowl, just like every other team out there. We'll work to do that this offseason."

Note: Pagano said four players who were injured Saturday -- fullback Stanley Havili, cornerbacks Darius Butler and Josh Gordy and offensive lineman Hugh Thornton -- were still being evaluated to see if they would need offseason surgery. ... Indy also signed six players to reserve-future contracts: guard Zach Allen, center Thomas Austin, linebacker Alan Baxter, cornerback Marcus Burley, quarterback Chandler Harnish and tight end Martell Webb.

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