It was almost like 42 years of expectations and broken promises was too much for the Jets to carry into the AFC championship, the 24-19 loss on Sunday night a testament to a team not ready to play.
Before a frenzied crowd of yellow towel whipping Western Pennsylvanians, the weight of history came crashing down on these Jets, the confetti at game’s end black and gold, not the green and white which New York had hoped for.
A stellar second half comeback fell short, a 24-3 halftime deficit proving to be too much for a team which came out flat. Pittsburgh, holding onto the ball for 21 minutes in the first half and efficiently churning out 135 yards rushing in the opening two quarters, booked their Super Bowl ticket with an impressive first half. The dud opening act for the Jets comes at the end of a business-like week from the team, who quietly kept from jawing and making headlines, focusing rather at the task at hand. It was a change from their usually flamboyant and outlandish style, the Jets choosing to be tame and ratchet down the intensity level in the face of their trip to Pittsburgh.
And it showed on the field on Sunday night.
Perhaps it was a hangover from the week before, a 28-21 win over their most hated of rivals in New England, a divisional round victory which provided an antidote to the humiliation they suffered in Week 13 to the Patriots. The Jets played sloppy football in the first half, a half marred with four costly penalties and the offense giving up the ball four times –three punts and a Mark Sanchez turnover – on their five possessions.
The Jets lacked the edge and buzz from the week before, a timid side which bore no resemblance to the giant beaters of a week earlier. They sounded nothing like the team which last week dared the Patriots to play them. They looked nothing like the team from last week either.
Instead, the Jets looked like they belonged nowhere near the field. Second half adjustments on the defensive side of the ball made it a game and swung momentum away from the home team. Heinz Field was nowhere near the cauldron of enthusiasm it was an hour earlier after Mike DeVito sacked Ben Roethlisberger for a safety midway through the fourth quarter, two points which made the game interesting for Jets fans for the first time since kickoff.
But the first half, those opening 30 minutes, doomed the Jets.
“We played a good half, we didn’t play a good game,” head coach Rex Ryan said in his postgame press conference.
The second half will someday become the stuff of legends for a team that has tasted bitter little success since that Super Bowl III appearance 42 years ago. The players will be immortalized for their heroic and furious comeback in a way that only Jets fans can repaint history. But only one team from tonight’s AFC Championship Game is heading to Dallas next week for the Super Bowl, and it was the team that won the first half which. The Steelers will be playing Green Bay for the Vince Lombardi Trophy because the Jets gave them the first half.
Missed tackles were cited by Ryan as the reason for the loss, the culprit for the Jets early woes and the Steelers early game success. Pittsburgh had a combined 31 plays in the first half which were either runs or completed passes, setting the tone and tempo early. Rashard Mendhall bounced and pinged like a pinball off would-be tacklers, getting yards after second and third hits.
With each churn of his legs, the Jets hole seemed to get deeper and deeper.
“The tackling’s not up to our standard,” Ryan said.
After a week of focus on the AFC Championship Game, a week where Ryan kept telling his team to focus first on beating the Steelers before they begin talk of a Super Bowl, the Jets looked nothing like a team ready to vie for a championship. Instead of being ready for the franchise’s biggest game in 42 years, the Jets provided the Steelers a 21-point cushion by halftime.
It was all Pittsburgh would need, bringing an end to another dramatic Jets playoff run.
“We played great in the first two games of the postseason,” cornerback Darrelle Revis said. “They came out ready. We didn’t.”