INDIANAPOLIS -- The last trip to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, for the Indianapolis Colts ended in embarrassment when they lost the AFC Championship Game 45-7 to the New England Patriots on Jan. 18, 2015.
As much as the Colts were embarrassed, they felt just as optimistic about the future because they believed they were on the cusp of being able to knock Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the Patriots from their throne atop the AFC the next season.
Three seasons later, the Colts haven't sniffed a playoff game since that last trip to Gillette. The Patriots have continued to stay at or near the top of the conference, winning two Super Bowls since then.
The journey for the Colts has featured some bad free-agent signings, internal bickering between the head coach and general manager, the general manager being fired, the head coach being fired, the franchise quarterback missing 26 games, and the start of a rebuilding process of the once-proud franchise in Indianapolis. Including the start of this season, the Colts are 21-31 since that 2014 season.
Colts general manager Chris Ballard said last winter that the rivalry with the Patriots was back on. The Colts need to fix their roster and find a way to beat the Patriots before they can think about calling it a rivalry again.
"Wow, a lot has happened since then," former Colts punter Pat McAfee said. "With Andrew Luck being hurt, it really changes the whole direction of a team. Whenever you invest that much time, effort and money into a player and he misses a year and a half and isn't even healthy when he's playing, I think that can really derail a focus and a vision for a franchise. I think the Colts now -- with a fresh start with Frank Reich, Chris Ballard entering his second year -- I think the Colts now have a vision."
The Colts "lost their way" after that AFC Championship Game, according to multiple people. The focus was less on trying to build the roster and more on focusing strictly on ways to beat the Patriots.
The 2015 offseason was a telling sign of that.
Former Colts general manager Ryan Grigson grabbed all his poker chips and took a risky gamble on trying to reach the Super Bowl the following season. He went out and signed aging veterans Frank Gore, Andre Johnson, Trent Cole and Todd Herremans thinking those players, along with the returning core players, would be enough to beat the Patriots and reach the Super Bowl the following season. Gore had the longest stay with the Colts, playing out all three years on his contract. Herremans didn't last a full season, Johnson lasted just one and Cole played two seasons in Indianapolis.
Another move that raised a lot of eyebrows was the Colts' decision to use their 2015 first-round pick on receiver Phillip Dorsett despite having more pressing needs on the offensive and defensive lines. The bad free-agent signings in 2015, coupled with having only eight players remaining from the 2012-16 draft classes, had Ballard stepping into a situation where he had to come in and clean house. Ballard has put a premium on building through the draft, and he's found some core players on defense and offense to go with the likes of Luck and receiver T.Y. Hilton.
There are only five players still on the roster from the last time the Colts played at Gillette.
"I can't speak for those three years, but I can speak relative to what Chris Ballard is doing and what Frank Reich is doing," former Colts general manager Bill Polian said. "They're doing exactly the right thing. They're going about it the right way. They're using the right systems, and it's going to take time. But they'll right the ship. I have no doubt in my mind. No doubt."