|Eric Gay / Associated Press|
|The emergence of WR Pierre Garcon (85) is one reason why the Colts can feel good about their chances next season.|
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Reggie Wayne stared right through all those reporters.
Moments after Indianapolis came up one win short of a championship, the Pro Bowl wide receiver downplayed the disappointment by focusing on next season.
"I'd rather win than lose, but I think once we get this feeling out of the way, we'll be determined to come back and get another shot at it," Wayne said.
Who could blame him for being upset? He'll hear about this loss for years.
"I felt like we played well this postseason," quarterback Peyton Manning said. "We played well in our first playoff game, played well two weeks ago and, at times, made some plays against the Saints. We just didn't play well enough to win."
The Colts compiled several impressive accomplishments this season:
» They broke the NFL record for consecutive regular-season wins (23).
» They set the league mark for wins in a decade (115).
» They extended their NFL mark of consecutive 12-win seasons to seven.
» They completed seven fourth-quarter comebacks, also a league record.
» Manning won his fourth MVP award, breaking a tie with Brett Favre for the most ever.
But the Colts could have done so much more.
Late in December, the Colts were 14-0 and had a shot to join the 2007 New England Patriots as the only teams to go 16-0 in a regular season. But Indianapolis traded that chance for an opportunity to rest its starters down the stretch, figuring that was the best way to chase a second Super Bowl title in the last four years.
The Colts finished 14-2 in the regular season and 16-3 overall. Their 31-17 loss to New Orleans on Sunday left both quests unfulfilled.
"I lost my last college game, too, and you never want to dwell on it," wide receiver Pierre Garcon said. "But it happens. You take it and use it as motivation to come back again next year."
The Colts should look awfully familiar. The likelihood of an uncapped season means players with less than six years' experience cannot become unrestricted free agents. The new rule undoubtedly will help the Colts, who started the season as the fifth-youngest team in average NFL experience (3.89 years).
The new rules also will prevent the Colts from making any splashy moves in free agency unless they lose a player. No big deal for a team that prefers to build through the draft anyway.
Jim Caldwell will enter his second season as head coach, and he already has successors in place for retiring offensive line coach Howard Mudd and offensive coordinator Tom Moore and team president Bill Polian if they decide to leave.
Indianapolis does have one big move to make -- re-signing Manning, whose contract expires after next season. But he's not going anywhere. Team owner Jim Irsay is prepared to make Manning the highest-paid quarterback in league history again.
"We'd like to get something done, sooner than later," Irsay said. "So once the season ends, we're going to be talking about that and hopefully getting something done before next season begins. It's something that's going to get done, so honestly, those aren't the ones you worry about."
The lack of movement and return of several injured players should make the Colts even stronger in 2010.
Former first-round draft pick Anthony Gonzalez was expected to have his breakout season after wide receiver Marvin Harrison was released in February. Gonzalez never got the chance, sustaining a knee injury during the first quarter of the season opener. That opened the door for second-year pro Garcon and rookie Austin Collie, both of whom had big seasons.
With all three expected back next season, along with Pro Bowl players Wayne and tight end Dallas Clark, Manning could have his deepest and most experienced group of receivers since arriving in Indianapolis in 1998.
Also expected back is 2007 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders, who missed 17 of the Colts' 19 games this season with a knee injury and torn biceps. Polian has repeatedly said that Sanders will be healthy for training camp.
And the Colts believe cornerback Marlin Jackson, their 2005 first-round pick, will return after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament for the second consecutive season. In 2008, it was the right knee. This season, it was his left.
Even without those three players, the Colts still managed to reach the Super Bowl. So they'll spend the offseason figuring out what it will take to return to football's biggest game -- and close it out with a victory.
"We're going to take our disappointment and let it fuel us a bit," Caldwell said. "We'll see what 2010 brings us."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press