Sooner or later in the young regime of head coach Rex Ryan and quarterback Mark Sanchez, the New York Jets might realize how to put together more than one good half of football in an AFC title game.
And, they might even discover how to reach that game without having to do it the hard way.
For the second straight year however, an end to the Jets’ long Super Bowl drought wasn’t meant to be.
One year after New York surprisingly rode a five seed to the AFC championship game only to get outscored 17-0 in the second half of a 30-17 loss to Indianapolis, the sixth-seeded Jets (13-6) ran out of road miracles in a 24-19 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers (14-4) after falling behind 24-0 late in the first half of this year’s AFC title game at Heinz Field on Sunday.
Several times this season, New York looked like it might be a team of destiny, and for a while, it again appeared that way against the now Super Bowl-bound Steelers.
Six times this year – including five times on the road, once in the playoffs, and once, five weeks ago against Pittsburgh – the Jets had rallied from second-half deficits to pull out unlikely victories.
This time, the hole was just too big for New York to dig out of despite a terrific effort that turned a first-half laugher into a serious situation for the Steelers down the stretch.
The physical Steelers took it to the Jets in the opening half, pushing the New York’s offensive and defensive lines around with ease.
Behind a stout defense and an unstoppable running game, Pittsburgh outgained New York, 231-50 (135-1 on the ground), and held the ball for 21:04 to New York’s 8:56, while getting 16 of the game’s 21 first downs during the first half.
The tone was set early, on the game’s first drive.
Although the Jets began a Week 15 win in Pittsburgh with a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, Ryan decided to defer the opening kick, a decision for which New York would pay by subsequently allowing a long, punishing Pittsburgh drive.
The Steelers consumed 9:06 before the Jets touched the ball, going 66 yards on 15 plays to take a 7-0 lead on a first-down, one-yard touchdown plunge by running back Rashard Mendenhall, who rushed for a game-high 121 yards (95 in the first half) on 27 carries.
Pittsburgh then forced a punt on New York’s first possession and moved 55 yards to the Jets’ 32 yard-line, but a 4th-and-1 pass by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (10-19, 133 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT) deflected off of Mendenhall’s hands and was caught by linebacker Bryan Thomas for the first turnover of the game.
The Jets then had their first of three consecutive three-and-outs, the last of which, ended with what proved to be a decisive fumble return for a touchdown.
Before that, the Steelers would score on two straight possessions.
Pittsburgh went 60 yards on eight plays in 3:41, to lead 10-0, on a field goal by kicker Shaun Suisham with 6:54 left in the half, and traveled 66 yards on seven plays in 3:57 to extend its lead to 17-0 on a two-yard touchdown run by Roethlisberger with 2:05 to go in the half.
The backbreaker came three plays later for the Jets, as Sanchez (20-33, 233 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT) fumbled after being hit from behind on a blitz by cornerback Ike Taylor. The only New York turnover was scooped up by cornerback William Gay, who raced 19 yards into the end zone to give the Steelers what eventually became an insurmountable 24-0 lead with 1:13 remaining before halftime.
Sanchez, who left the field after the play, holding his non-throwing left arm in considerable pain, showed some great toughness, immediately directing the Jets on their first scoring drive of the game.
He completed four passes to move New York 44 yards on seven plays in just 1:04, to set up kicker Nick Folk for a 42-yard field goal attempt which hooked left before fading right, just inside the left upright.
The kick trimmed the Steelers’ lead to 24-3, nine seconds before halftime, and just as importantly, gave the Jets a much-needed emotional boost which they carried into the second half.
Taking the second-half kickoff, New York struck quickly, going 90 yards on five plays in just 2:47, with half of the drive coming on a 45-yard touchdown bomb up the right side to wide receiver Santonio Holmes (2 catches, 61 yards). The former Steeler whose game-winning catch as a Super Bowl MVP won Super Bowl XLIII for Pittsburgh, pulled the Jets to within 24-10, just 2:38 into the third quarter.
The play was just the beginning of a second half that flipped around New York’s disastrous first half and gave the Jets some realistic hope late in the game.
New York outscored Pittsburgh 19-0 and outgained the Steelers 239-56 after halftime.
Roethlisberger moved Pittsburgh 35 yards and into Jets’ territory, but he was intercepted by safety Brodney Pool, and New York took over at its own 14 yard-line.
The teams then traded punts, before the Jets embarked on their longest drive of the game, only to come away empty.
The Jets went 80 yards on 17 plays in 8:06, as Sanchez threw incomplete on second and third down before running back LaDainian Tomlinson (9 carries, 16yards) was stopped on 4th-and-goal with 7:44 left in the game.
However, with starting center Maurkice Pouncey lost to an injury earlier in the game, a bad exchange on the next play led to Roethlisberger covering the ball up in the end zone for a safety in the same end zone in which the Jets had a key safety in the fourth quarter that helped them beat the Steelers in Week 15.
Trailing 24-12, New York drove for another score to get even closer, going 58 yards on ten plays in 4:32, cutting Pittsburgh’s lead to 24-19, on a four-yard touchdown pass from Sanchez to wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery (5 catches, 33 yards) with 3:09 remaining.
The Jets had all of the momentum and needed one more stop to give Sanchez and New York’s offense an opportunity to send the Jets back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1969.
But, it never came, as Roethlisberger, who hadn’t completed a pass In over 21 minutes, connected on a pair of 14-yard throws to clinch the win for the Steelers.
A completion to tight end Heath Miller (2 catches, team-high 38 yards) gave the Steelers a first down at the Jets’ 44 yard-line, and facing a 3rd-and-6 from the New York 40 yard-line with two minutes left, Roethlisberger completed to rookie wide receiver Antonio Brown (his only catch) for a first down to the Jets’ 26 yard-line.
Three Roethlisberger kneel-downs ran out the clock and ended the Jets’ dreams of once again defying long odds to reach their elusive Super Bowl.
The Steelers’ win marks the eighth straight year that one of this season’s top three AFC seeds, each with Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks – New England, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis – has represented the AFC in the Super Bowl.
The Jets were trying to finish off beating that trio of teams on Sunday, after playoff wins over Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, and over Tom Brady in New England, to reach Pittsburgh.
Instead, it’s a fairly safe bet that New York Jet fans, some of whom have been waiting as long as 42 years to finally see their team back in the Super Bowl, might be thinking, “If only the Jets could have put together last year’s first half and this year’s second half over the past two AFC title games, we wouldn’t be waiting anymore.”
But, as Sanchez said after the loss, “You can’t play 30 minutes in a game of this magnitude.”
Next, year, the Jets will again try to win the AFC East and avoid the tough road route to the Super Bowl, especially after starting last season 7-7 and winning two road playoff games each of the past two years only to come a game short of the Super Bowl in each year.
Just after Brown’s catch gave the Steelers the final first down they needed, Ryan ripped the headset off his head and threw it to the ground in disgust.
Reflecting later on, he said “I believe in our football team… We’ve got a lot of heart… Our team is resilient… I’m proud of our guys. We played a good half, we just never played a good game… There’s obviously a huge amount of disappointment… [but] our goal for next year won’t change… we’re going to chase that Super Bowl until we get it, and then we’re going to chase it again.”
When asked if he would have toned down the Jets’ brash, trash-talking nature, he responded defiantly, “I’d change the outcome of this game, that’s the only thing I’d change. We’ll be back and you’ll see… this football team’s going to be good for a number of years.”
Quite possibly, as the future for the Jets appears bright. But, for now, the team that very prematurely boasted of winning the Super Bowl since being filmed on HBO during the preseason, ends its season for a second straight year the way It began – with hard knocks, indeed.