"Everybody's disappointed that we didn't go to the Super Bowl, especially when we were this close," Jets left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson said, almost spitting out the words. "We didn't do everything that we needed to win. But at the same rate, we did do a lot of great things.
"I can't even say we're second. Nobody wants to be third or fourth. Maybe in a week or two it will be different."
Implausible as it seemed before the game, the Jets looked like they would sabotage the coronation, giving the crowd of 67,650 a collective coronary by building an 11-point lead late in the second quarter.
Manning calmly swayed momentum before halftime and, by the third quarter, staked the Jets in the heart -- repeatedly.
"With Peyton Manning, if you can't disrupt his rhythm he's going to kill you," Jets coach Rex Ryan said, "and we couldn't disrupt it enough."
And so it ended for the Jets, their captivating run falling about 23 minutes short of the Super Bowl.
The Jets have plenty to be thrilled about for the future, but they couldn't bring themselves to consider any of it.
"It's hard to be proud right now, but we came a long way," left guard Alan Faneca mumbled with a dismissive shrug. "We fought through a lot of stuff. We came together as a team. Yeah, there's stuff to be proud of."
The Jets defied the odds over the past couple months.
They trudged onward without Pro Bowl nose tackle Kris Jenkins, Pro Bowl kick returner and running back Leon Washington and special-teams legend Larry Izzo, all lost to season-ending injuries along the way.
They helped rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez decipher the NFL in the nick of time. Even though Ryan declared them mathematically eliminated from the postseason race after Week 15, they won their final two games and received an astronomical amount of outside help to slip into the playoffs.
On the road throughout the playoffs, the Jets upset a pair of division champs to reach Indianapolis, known as the Crossroads of America.
The Jets might look back on Sunday as the crossroads of their organization.
"Maybe this football team needed to get here and have this experience in order to take the next step," Leonhard said. "We thought we were ready this year. Maybe we weren't. We have to take this experience and learn from it."
All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis didn't have much of an impact against the Colts.
There were all sorts of reasons for Sunday's loss:
Rookie running back Shonn Greene, their playoff MVP, suffered a rib injury in the third quarter and carried 10 times for 41 yards. The Jets' offense stalled in his absence, failing to score again.
Inside linebacker Bart Scott's ankle injury carried into the game and rendered him "a one-legged man," Ryan said. Scott made two tackles.
The Jets decided to use young cornerback Dwight Lowery instead of veteran Lito Sheppard, a move Manning said pleasantly surprised him. Nickel back Donald Strickland went down with a groin injury in the first quarter.
Darrelle Revis playing like an All-Pro wasn't enough. Manning made Revis Island seem like Grenada.
Jay Feely missed field goals from 44 yards and 52 yards, not only failing to score points, but also forfeiting prime field position.
Even so, dissecting what went into the final score of a single excruciating game is pointless when you have much broader issues to reflect upon and such a luminescent future ahead.
The Jets are an organization on the rise. As Leonhard mentioned a few times, "You never know when an opportunity like this is going to come again." But the Jets established themselves as a team to fear for years to come.
A foundation for long-term success is well in place. They're a defensive colossus and will get Jenkins back next season. The Jets might have the NFL's best offensive line, with Pro Bowlers from center to left tackle.
Perhaps even more significant, Sanchez grew up before our eyes over the final five weeks. He played with poise Sunday, completing 17 of 30 passes for 257 yards and two touchdowns with one interception that was overthrown but also tipped.
"Mark played great, and hopefully that's the thing that we're seeing from this point on," Ryan said. "You see that confidence that he has. He knows our offense. He's comfortable.
"When we come back, we'll be able to hit the ground running, which obviously is a lot different than how we entered this season."
We probably saw the baton passed from veteran running back Thomas Jones to Greene. Second-year tight end Dustin Keller emerged as a money target with a touchdown reception in each of their three playoff games.
"We're close. There is no question," Ryan said. "We accomplished a heck of a lot. We thought we could win it all. We really did. We don't need a whole lot."