FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A season dedicated to his late wife Myra fell just short of the ending he had envisioned, but New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft nevertheless praised his team's "strength and spirit" in the wake of Sunday's gut-wrenching loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI.
Kraft spoke briefly to the media Monday afternoon after the team had arrived at Gillette Stadium in buses, passing a couple hundred fans who waited behind barriers to greet their fallen heroes. Included in the crowd were a number of youngsters holding signs thanking the Patriots for a good season.
"I just want to take this opportunity to say thank you to the fans for the support they gave the team and my family all year," said Kraft. "They came out even (Monday). That's unbelievable to me.
"When we dedicated this season to my sweetheart, I spoke with the coaches and the players and asked them to do something that would be special in her honor. The strength and spirit I saw with the team was unlike any other team I've seen in my 18 years in the NFL.
"That sense of spirit also generated by our fans was appreciated by the team and our family. That's something that I'm forever to be grateful for. I'm proud of our fans."
Patriots coach Bill Belichick echoed Kraft's sentiments about the makeup of this team.
"I'm real proud of them," he said. "They worked hard all year. They competed well all season and we won a lot of games. The ones we didn't win we fought right until the end and played very competitively. We did that last night and just came up a little bit short. I have all the respect in the world for the team, and all the players, what they've done for over six months. It's not about one game or one play or anything, it's a whole body of work.
"I really, really enjoyed coaching this team. I have a lot of respect for them."
Falling short, 21-17, in the Super Bowl to the Giants -- for the second time in the four years, in a similarly agonizing last-minute fashion -- was not easy to swallow. But Kraft adopted a big-picture acceptance of the frustrating final outcome.
"What happened is we have created a level of expectations that is high. I'm very happy with that," said Kraft, whose Patriots won Super Bowls in 2002, 2004 and 2005 before losing to the Giants in 2008 and 2012.
"There is a six percent chance of getting to the Super Bowl and a three percent chance of winning it. I think our coaching staff and our players did a remarkable job this year," he said.
"We're all disappointed with what happened," said Kraft. "(But) that's the beauty of the NFL. That's the reason the networks pay our league as much as they do. No one knows how things will go. Not the head coach, the quarterback, the owner, the defensive linemen. Two or three plays make a difference in the game."
Those key plays were made by the Giants in this case, disappointing the Patriots players on more than one level. Not only were they unable to win the big game, they fell short of accomplishing a more spiritual team-wide goal, said defensive back James Ihedigbo.
"It was an amazing season," said Ihedigbo, one of just a handful of players in the Pats' locker room Monday.
"We dedicated the season to (Myra Kraft) and her honor and we went out and played that way. We wanted to finish it the right way and hand Mr. Kraft and his family the (Lombardi) trophy. It didn't work out that way, but it still was an amazing season," he said.
And already, Kraft is setting his sights on next year, and a return to the Super Bowl.
"We are excited with our core of players and our young players," said Kraft. "I'm also excited that we have two No. 1s and two No. 2s in the upcoming draft."
Belichick was also in turn-the-page mode.
"We'll try to take a little time here and regroup, and figure out some of the things we need to do and move forward," he said. "The Combine is in two-and-a-half weeks and I'm sure there will be a lot of other things on the agenda between now and then. So we'll just take them as they come. For right now, we're just kind of collecting our thoughts and we'll figure it out here in due course."
The 2011 season, meanwhile, is now in the books, a season that produced a mediocre 5-3 start, followed by 10 wins in a row and another birth in the Super Bowl.
"It was," said Kraft softly, "a memorable season."
Steven Krasner is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.