Colts ready to put disappointing end behind them

HONOLULU -- Their season ended prematurely with a loss to the eventual Super Bowl XL champion Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round, but Indianapolis Colts players here for the Pro Bowl insisted they haven't lost their focus on winning an NFL title someday, or their willingness to do whatever it takes to claim a Vince Lombardi Trophy.

And they certainly haven't lost any faith in their quarterback, even as the remarks Peyton Manning made in the wake of the season-ending loss on Jan. 15 continue to be dredged up more than three weeks later.

"As far as I'm concerned, Peyton didn't say anything wrong, because we didn't do a good job in protection," said left offensive tackle Tarik Glenn. "And that includes me, for sure, and I know it. We picked a bad day to have maybe our worst game of the season. And as far as the talk that Peyton can't win the big game, let me tell you, every team in the NFL would love to have Peyton Manning. No one in the NFL buys into that stuff about not being able to win the big game. But we do have to find a way, we, not just Peyton, of getting it done. We have to work even harder at it, I guess."

The offseason, at least at this early juncture, has not been kind to Indianapolis, a team that posted the NFL's best regular-season record, and which was the season-long Super Bowl favorite.

Even as contrived as the suggestions might have been, Manning is perceived as having thrown his offensive line under the bus following the loss to the Steelers, when he noted the Colts had problems with protection. There are a number of key veterans eligible for free agency. And the primary guy among them, tailback Edgerrin James, is sounding like someone whose bags are already packed.

On the flip side, the Colts have eight players here for Sunday's all-star game, the biggest representation of any franchise in the league. The roster remains one of the league's most talented. With the exception of James, who played under the one-year qualifying offer for a franchise running back in 2005, but who isn't likely to be tagged again this year, all of the Pro Bowl players will be back for next season.

And the Colts will be back for another shot, the players vowed, at the elusive Super Bowl berth some outsiders worry Manning won't ever deliver.

Should the talented Colts fall short again in 2006, it won't be a result of residual baggage from this past season, it seems. The deeds and misdeeds of 2005, Manning's assessment of the jolting divisional-round defeat, and even the tragic events that forever altered the family of coach Tony Dungy, have been committed to football history.

Less than a month after the unthinkable loss to Pittsburgh, less than a week after Colts players watched at home as the Steelers stole off with the Super Bowl title Indianapolis felt was its own this year, the wounds have all but healed. And the Colts in the Pro Bowl aren't about to rip them open again.

"There's nothing Peyton has to say to us to explain himself," said center Jeff Saturday. "Like everyone else in our locker room that day, he was frustrated, and just looking for some way to express that. I mean, there was a finality to that day, and none of us was prepared for it. For me to bring up the stuff Peyton said, to start revisiting the events of that day, what good does it do anyone?"

Said weakside linebacker Cato June, who is making his first Pro Bowl appearance, "I don't think it helps to look back. I'm a guy who is more about the future. And I think we have a pretty bright future. That's just how I see it."

It hurt some Indianapolis players to see the franchise that had knocked the Colts out of the playoffs win the Super Bowl title. It is the third year in a row that the team that ended Indianapolis' season -- the New England Patriots in 2003 and 2004 and Pittsburgh in 2005 -- went on to become Super Bowl champion.

Safety Bob Sanders, another first-time Pro Bowl player, said that only reaffirms his belief that the Colts are close to earning a Super Bowl berth of their own. But being close, the two-year veteran agreed, doesn't make things any easier. And it wasn't easy, either, for Colts players to witness Super Bowl XL as spectators, not participants.

James spent much of Sunday bowling in Los Angeles at a get-together hosted by actor Jamie Foxx, and said he was more concerned with picking up spares than with how Seattle tried to pick up the Pittsburgh blitz. Saturday watched most of the game, but it was a painful experience, he said. Defensive end Dwight Freeney and Glenn both said they could watch only parts of the game. Manning was en route to Hawaii while much of Super Bowl XL was being contested.

"You can't help but think, 'Yeah, that could be us,' definitely," Freeney said. "But you have to keep believing, and I do. I still think it will be us, and soon. Ask some of the guys around here, guys from other teams, what they think about us. I'm betting they still think we're a pretty good team. I think the perception of us is still a good one."

On the subject of perceptions, Manning reiterated that characterizations he was publicly critical of his offensive linemen following the loss to Pittsburgh, which sacked him four times and harassed him throughout the game, were exaggerated. Manning, who is always accommodating to the media and has never dodged an interview after even the toughest defeat, admitted he was stung by the backlash from his remarks.

"I've never put the [black] hat on anyone else, and I've always been accountable, and I was that day, too," said Manning, who has grown weary of rehashing his remarks, but who nonetheless discussed the situation again. "It's incredible that I was perceived as being something I was trying 100 percent to avoid being. Pass protection involves a lot of people, starting with me, and never once did I mention the offensive line. It turned into a lot more than it should have been."

Whether the Colts turn into something they are supposed to be in 2006 -- Super Bowl champs -- remains to be seen. Indianapolis has already been installed by oddsmakers as the favorite to capture Super Bowl XLI. And although Sunday's game here isn't exactly the official start of that quest, the game offers eight Colts players one more opportunity to end the 2005 campaign on a fun note, and to build on the resolve for 2006.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.