"The score didn't indicate what type of game it was," wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said.
Cotchery has a valid point. The Patriots never led by more than 10 points until Kevin Faulk's 7-yard touchdown catch from Tom Brady put them ahead 30-16 with 5:16 to go, and Asante Samuel's 36-yard touchdown on an interception return of a Chad Pennington pass 22 seconds later sealed the win.
Still, there was no doubt which team was better on this day, and the Jets saw how far they still must to go to reach New England's level. Especially in the playoffs, when the Patriots typically raise their game.
"You can't decry the evidence," linebacker Matt Chatham, a former Patriot, said when asked if there was a gap between the AFC East rivals. "We didn't do what we intended to do."
The defeat was toughest on Pennington, who was named Comeback Player of the Year after returning from two shoulder surgeries to guide the Jets to a 10-6 season and playoff berth.
"I hope I'm blessed and fortunate enough," Pennington said, "to come into this next season and get back with these guys and work hard and do what we did this year."
Pennington had to win the starting job in training camp last summer, and likely will be challenged again in 2007. The Jets are very high on the potential of second-round 2006 draft choice Kellen Clemens, and figure to give him a chance at the job, although Pennington should enter next summer as the clear favorite.
At least for the first time since he was preparing for the 2004 season, Pennington won't have to endure an off-season of grueling rehab.
"I'm excited that I can be normal," he said. "I hope to have a normal, successful off-season where I can finally concentrate on me as a player and really look at the things that I can do to get better. The last two years, it was really all about trying to get this shoulder back to functioning properly."
"We just have to come in in the off-season and fix the mistakes," said Bryan Thomas, who blossomed in 2006 playing mostly as a standup linebacker. "We just havw to work better in the off-season and get it right."
Thomas, who signed a lucrative contract extension in November, certainly will be part of next season's plan. But of course, some players who were on the field Sunday won't be. Running backs Kevan Barlow and Derrick Blaylock fell out of favor and won't be back, and wide receiver Justin McCareins, who lost his starting spot to Jerricho Cotchery in training camp, might not return.
"The thing is we know what it takes now. We learned that," rookie running back Leon Washington said. "We don't want to go back. I think we'll come back next year at a different level and we'll keep building on those blocks."
But as coach Eric Mangini said, "I think that every year is its own entity and what's going to happen 12 months from now is going to be so different. Each year is its own distinct period of time and just don't know what's going to happen over the course of the off-season."
--CB Andre Dyson started despite a sprained right knee, but didn't finish the first series as the Patriots picked on him heavily, completing three passes to Jabar Gaffney in front of him.
--QB Chad Pennington came off for one play in the first quarter, but quickly returned. He said afterward that he hyper-extended his left (non-throwing) elbow when he put his hand on the ground to keep from falling down after a hit by Richard Seymour.
--WR Laveranues Coles had five receptions for 45 yards, but came out of the game on the opening possession of the third quarter after suffering another hit to his already sore jaw. He returned on the next series.
--K Mike Nugent finished the season by converting his last 21 field goals. He hit 18 straight to end the regular season and converted from 28, 21 and 37 yards against New England.
--RB Cedric Houston was used sparingly, carrying the ball just once for no gain.