INDIANAPOLIS - Jim Leonhard had almost completed the slow trek from the field to the Jets' locker room when the safety shook his head slightly as a few team officials applauded.
The Jets had come so close, had nearly kept their improbable postseason run going. But Leonhard and his teammates were headed in to hear Rex Ryan's postgame thoughts after the team fell short in its bid to reach the Super Bowl for the first time in 41 years.
"Just a lot of frustration," Leonhard said. "You come up short of your goals, so it's really hard to say anything. He understands how hard this team worked and how dedicated this team was to each other and to winning. So there's not a whole lot to say. It's too fresh a wound to say anything and make yourself feel better."
That's because the Jets watched Indianapolis' high-octane offense kick things into gear and erase what had been an 11-point second-quarter deficit. Peyton Manning threw three touchdown passes and the Jets were blanked in the final 30 minutes in a 30-17 loss to the Colts in the AFC Championship Game Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"Today wasn't our day," Ryan said. "We have a good football team, but today wasn't our day, there's no question. You have to give credit to the Colts. Obviously, they are the cream of the crop right now."
Said rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez: "This one stings." Especially after the Jets played so well at the outset, taking a 17-6 lead late in the second quarter.
They sacked Manning, who had been sacked 10 times all season, twice on his first two series but never got to him again. He began carving them up in the final two minutes of the first half and finished 26-for-39 for 377 yards and three TDs, sparking an offense that stockpiled 461 yards and 27 first downs.
It didn't take Manning long to overcome an 11-point deficit created by Sanchez's two TD tosses and Jay Feely's 48-yard field goal. He threw a 16-yard TD pass to Austin Collie with 1:13 left in the first half, capping a four-play, 80-yard, 58-second drive, and the game began to turn.
"We were up 17-13, and we still felt good about our chances," safety Kerry Rhodes said. "We pretty much played better than them in the first half. We had a chance to just go back out in the second half and do it again. But they turned it up a little bit after halftime, and Peyton got in a groove and they were tough."
The Colts seized the momentum after Feely pushed a 52-yard field-goal try to the right to start the second half.
From the Jets' 4, Manning hit Pierre Garçon, who beat Dwight Lowery, two steps in front of the back right pylon to cap an eight-play, 57-yard drive that gave the Colts a 20-17 lead with 8:03 left in the third quarter.
The Colts made it 27-17 when Manning hit Dallas Clark on a 15-yard crossing pattern on second-and-6. He got behind the defense and was wide open, finishing a seven-play, 80-yard drive with 8:52 left. Matt Stover added a 21-yard field goal with 2:29 left.
After putting up 17 second-quarter points and racking up 216 yards in the first half, the Jets gained only 172 yards and barely moved the ball on six second-half possessions. Running back Shonn Greene's exit with a rib injury contributed to the struggles.
"We came out and probably had more attitude in that first half, and the score indicated that at halftime," said Braylon Edwards, who had 100 yards and a touchdown on two catches. "We came out and we didn't have as much attitude in the second half, and the score indicated that."
Edwards' beautiful 80-yard grab - the longest play in Jets playoff history - made it 7-3 in the second quarter, and the Jets led 14-6 after Sanchez hit Dustin Keller with a 9-yard strike with 4:53 left in the first half to cap a seven-play, 77-yard drive.
But the Manning-Collie connection shaved the Jets' lead to 17-13 and gave the Colts a huge momentum boost. The Jets never got much going after Collie's score and were left to ponder what might have been.
"There's a lot of thoughts going through your head," Leonhard said. "You never know when an opportunity like this is going to come up again. It's one of those things where maybe this football team needed to get here and have this experience in order to take the next step. We thought we were ready this year. Maybe we weren't.
"But everyone in this locker room will take this experience, learn from it and understand what they have to do going forward from this point to where we have a chance to be successful in this game."