INDIANAPOLIS -- He didn't want to talk about it that much and you couldn't blame him. On the day your season ends (one game short of the Super Bowl, no less), it's hard to be positive. Upbeat. Forward-thinking. The gloom was understandable.
But if there was anything for the Jets to take from their loss to the Colts in the AFC Championship game, anything for them to hold on to as they go into an offseason where the expectations will only continue to grow, it was this: Mark Sanchez grew up this month.
It doesn't make today feel any better. Doesn't make the flight home any easier. Doesn't make watching the film of the second half any more pleasant. The Jets led by 11 at one point, four at halftime and had a chance to go to the Super Bowl and deliver on a promise that just about everyone outside their own locker room thought was borderline insane.
They couldn't do it. And nothing can change that.
"We expected to go to the Super Bowl," Damien Woody said. "So is it going to sting? No question. It's going to sting a lot."
But when that sting starts to fade and when the Jets fans inevitably turn their attention to the draft and the offseason and the anticipation of 2010, they can take comfort in knowing that the experience wasn't lost on their young quarterback.
Even Sanchez, in between praising the Colts and ruing the Jets missed opportunities, admitted that he had seen a transformation in himself over the final chapter of the season.
"I started becoming the quarterback this team needs," he said, before quickly adding that, "I still have a long way to go. I haven't arrived. I haven't made it."
He has just gotten better. He has always had the skills, always had the ability to make plays that few can make. On the 80-yard touchdown pass to Braylon Edwards in the first quarter Sunday, Sanchez stepped back, pump-faked and tried to throw the ball 50 yards in the air flat-footed.
The ball hit Edwards in stride.
Later, after Brad Smith had thrown a 45-yard pass out of the Wildcat to put the Jets in position, Sanchez stood in the middle of the pocket and waited, waited, waited for Dustin Keller to battle with Colts defensive back Melvin Bullittt at the goal line.
Keller finally pushed away from Bullitt and only then did Sanchez let go of the ball, taking a crushing hit as he released.
Keller caught it for a touchdown.
"Mark played a great game," Keller said afterward. "He's grown up a lot throughout the year. We're really looking forward to him being our leader next year."
Was he perfect? Certainly not. There are still those plays, those throws, where it seems like Sanchez tries to do too much. On two occasions he was forced out of the pocket and threw passes that - even if they were supposed to be thrown away - were a little too risky, a little too close to an up-for-grabs interception.
He got away with them, though, and each game that goes by he has learned the value of patience a little more. He trusts himself in the pocket more now than he did earlier in the season, trusts his receivers to work off their routes.
As the Jets tried to rally in the second half, Sanchez converted third down after third down - important passes (most of them to Jerricho Cotchery) that kept the sellout crowd from bursting through the Lucas Oil Stadium roof.
That five-interception game against Buffalo, way back in Week 6, seems like a long time ago. So does the four-pick game against the Patriots in Week 11. Back then, there were calls - at least a few of them - for Rex Ryan to consider benching Sanchez. To let him learn from the sidelines the rest of his rookie season.
Instead he learned on the fly. In the huddle. On the field. When the Jets turned their year around and ended up in the AFC Championship, their rookie quarterback wasn't even close to the reason that they lost. Not even a little bit.
He finished the game 17-for-30, 257 yards and two touchdowns. Threw one interception near the end on a ball that was deflected. "He had a heck of a football game today," Woody said. "There were a lot of opportunities in the passing game and I thought we did well there."
They did. Sanchez did. And after playing the three biggest games of his life, it will only help him going forward.
It might not mean anything today, not when the loss is still fresh. Not when the sting is still lingering.
But it will soon. It will when they can move on and sit back and reflect on exactly what happened. Soon enough, the Jets will see what the best about this past month really was:
Their quarterback grew up.