INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -Colts players expected to follow their usual routine of film sessions, meetings and workouts Monday. Instead, they were packing trash bags and saying goodbye to teammates.
The scene was symbolic of how quickly impressions change in the NFL.
One minute, you're the defending Super Bowl champs and the biggest obstacle in the path to history. The next, you're the biggest loser because of one poor playoff performance that will haunt players, coaches and fans for months, if not years.
``You can't forget it for a while,'' Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday said. ``It's tough to deal with. It's very disappointing how we finished up, and we'll have to see how to improve from it.''
This season started out with so many expectations, so much promise, so much success that anything less than a repeat would be considered a failure in Indianapolis. When the road to consecutive titles ended abruptly Sunday against San Diego, it set off a myriad of emotions.
Kicker Adam Vinatieri, a four-time Super Bowl winner, said it stunk to be heading home this early. Linebacker Gary Brackett acknowledged the Colts laid another playoff egg, and safety Antoine Bethea stoically said Indy just did not get it done.
If there is any solace for the Colts, it's this: 2008 could produce a better final chapter.
The second-youngest team in the NFL this season won 13 games, and the only significant player who could become a free agent is tight end Dallas Clark. He's more likely to be designated the Colts' franchise player if he doesn't sign a deal before the Feb. 21 deadline.
Indy also won despite losing its best pass rusher, its best run stuffer, its most consistent receiving threat and playing with makeshift offensive and defensive lines the second half of the season.
Yet somehow the Colts still managed to allow the NFL's fewest points, earn their fifth straight AFC South title and post the AFC's second-best record behind the perfect Patriots.
If former sacks champion Dwight Freeney (foot surgery), perennial Pro Bowl receiver Marvin Harrison (left knee) and defensive tackle Anthony McFarland (knee surgery) return healthy next season, the Colts should be even better.
Of course many, including coach Tony Dungy, believed this year's team was stronger than last year's title-winning squad and the numbers backed up Dungy's contention.
While the offense continued scoring points by the dozens, the vastly improved defense finished third overall, second against the pass and trimmed its yards per carry allowed average from 5.3 in 2006 to 3.8 in 2007.
But that didn't translate into postseason success.
Indy committed three turnovers, allowed nine completions of at least 17 yards and struggled to pressure San Diego's two quarterbacks, Philip Rivers and Billy Volek, finishing the last four games with a total of one sack.
``That's something we'll have to address,'' Dungy said. ``Our defense is predicated on the pass rush, so we've got to figure out a way we can do that better.''
The silver lining from Sunday's demoralizing finish may be motivation.
Two years ago, after earning a bye, the Colts lost to Pittsburgh at home in the divisional round before rallying in 2006 to win the Super Bowl. Not surprisingly, some players are already using the 2005-06 model as an example of what they can do in 2007-08.
``I think the pain you have from the previous season definitely helps you going into the next season,'' defensive tackle Darrell Reid said.
The looming question for the Colts is whether Dungy will return.
He has two years left on his contract but is contemplating retirement, and a decision isn't expected until at least this weekend.
The Dungy era has been filled with achievements, like last year's championship run, and aberrations, like the two playoff losses after a bye week. But under Dungy the Colts also became the first team in league history with three straight 7-0 starts and five consecutive seasons with at least 12 wins, and they produced one of the most credible title defenses since 1990.
Dungy, who has always instructed his players that family comes first, is now trying to live by the philosophy he preaches - deciding whether he can strike the proper balance between his job on the sidelines and his job as a father.
``I hope to be back, we'll see what happens,'' he said. ``If there's anywhere you'd want to work, it's here. On the other side of it, I've got some kids who I want to be a good dad to and I don't want to shortchange either one.''
Should Dungy leave, the Colts may turn to Jim Caldwell, the assistant head coach who filled in for one game in 2005 following the death of Dungy's 18-year-old son, James.
There are indications Dungy may return.
He spoke Monday about what areas the Colts needed to improve and repeatedly acknowledged he'd like to continue coaching.
With or without him, there's still much to accomplish.
They must get healthy, must refocus, must commit themselves to avoiding another dismal finish - all before reclaiming those lockers next season in hopes of another Super Bowl run.
And, of course, the reminders won't go away.
``Any time you lose your last game, it's not a great year,'' Brackett said before leaving. ``I think there are things we can build on next season. You expect success. You expect to play in February, so it's disappointing to have it end this way.''

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