FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The box of plastic garbage bags was on a table in the middle of the New England Patriots' locker room on Monday.
One by one, members of the Patriots walked up to the table and grabbed a bag or two before heading to their respective lockers to conduct the season-ending cleanup.
You can insert your own metaphor here, tying in the garbage bags with the fact the Patriots, the top-seeded team in the AFC, were unceremoniously bounced by the trash-talking New York Jets 28-21 on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
The mood in the locker room was somber, broken occasionally by a hug amongst teammates, a few "see you laters" and "have a good offseasons."
This day comes every year. But after fashioning a 14-2 regular-season record, the best in the NFL, including a season-ending, eight-game winning streak in which New England scored at least 31 points in each game, this day wasn't supposed to come until after the Super Bowl.
"We're shocked," outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain said. "We weren't expecting this to happen. It's one of those things. We had some momentum built up in the regular season and some steam behind that momentum. To come to a screeching halt, it hurts."
"It's the playoffs," defensive back Kyle Arrington said softly. "You only get one shot. If you don't play your best that day, you're done. We worked hard to get to this point. We all played hard. A loss, especially at this time of the season, is tough no matter who you play."
Now, if they can bear it, the Patriots will have to watch the remaining teams in the playoffs -- Pittsburgh, New York, Chicago and Green Bay -- vie for the two Super Bowl berths knowing they beat each of those teams during the regular season.
"It's disappointing watching teams we played and beat playing for the big game," linebacker Rob Ninkovich said. "It's going to be disappointing, but it's football. In the postseason you get one game. You don't get a second chance. It's over."
"It's always tough," defensive back Patrick Chung said. "We're not in the playoffs anymore. The season's over. Now you have to get ready for another one."
But will there be an NFL season next year? That was the question hovering over the players as they packed up, because the collective bargaining agreement is up after the Super Bowl and there have been whispers that a lockout could shut down the NFL for who knows how long next year.
Part of head coach Bill Belichick's message to the players on Monday was that they should not consider themselves done with football, that they should continue to work out in the offseason, preparing for a full 2011 season.
Not all of the Patriots were available to the media on Monday. Defensive lineman and captain Vince Wilfork, who left the clubhouse before the media was allowed to enter Sunday night, did his speaking on Monday on WEEI but wasn't around the locker room when the media was there.
The players who were available addressed the labor situation, hoping the players' union and the owners will get together and strike a deal, allowing the 2011 NFL season to begin without any interruptions.
"You have to prepare like you're going to be back," Chung said. "You never know."
"We can't try to think about that too much," Arrington said. "You can only control what you can control."
"It's not a good situation," said Ninkovich, who suffered a left-knee injury late in Sunday's game and faces six weeks of rehab to heal.
"I want to be here for the offseason, working out and getting ready for next season. It's a wait-and-see situation. I have no idea what will happen," he added.
Banta-Cain, meanwhile, is optimistic about the labor situation.
"I'm really hoping something gets done," Banta-Cain said. "I know there will be NFL games next year, so you have to prepare yourself to be the best player you can be and hope for the best. Based on the history of how these things happen, there are too many people who love football [to not come to an agreement]. I don't see this as the end of football."
The players, Banta-Cain said, are programmed to do one thing -- play football. So they can only hope the matter gets settled.
"We're all football players," Banta-Cain said. "We love football. Football is our job. We don't want to dwell on it, but there should be football next year."
And if there is football again in 2011, the Patriots hope their part in it won't end as suddenly.