Rex Ryan has long preferred to defer upon winning the coin flip, allowing his defense to take the field first, hoping they could set the tone with an early stop. And so after the Jets won the coin flip and deferred tonight, the first drive did indeed set the tone, perhaps not for the entire game, but for the entire first half — just not at all in the way Ryan had hoped. Ben Roethlisberger would march the Steelers down the field for more than nine minutes before Rashard Mendenhall (who’d have 95 rushing yards and 32 receiving yards by the half) capped the drive with a one-yard touchdown run. Mark Sanchez, meanwhile, wouldn’t take the field until 5:46 remained in the first quarter.
The Jets’ defense would allow ten more points in the second quarter. And in a game in which protecting Sanchez was a key for the Jets, the Steelers would score a late touchdown by knocking the ball out of Sanchez’s hand milliseconds before he brought his arm forward to pass the ball, according to a booth review. By the time Nick Folk got the Jets on the board with fourteen seconds left in the half, the Steelers had put up 24 points — a lead that would prove too much for the Jets to overcome.
Not that the Jets didn’t show signs of life in the second half: They’d score nineteen unanswered points in this one (sixteen of them after halftime), and had legitimate momentum after opening the half with a five-play, 90 yard drive that ended with Santonio Holmes catching a 45-yard touchdown pass to bring the score to 24–10. But with the Jets threatening again in the fourth, the Steelers would come up with a critical goal-line stand (aided by some curious Jets play-calling).
And though the Jets would score two points on a safety shortly thereafter — and add a Jerricho Cotchery touchdown with 3:09 left — they wouldn’t get the ball back to try and tie the score, with Roethlisberger sealing the game by rolling to his right and completing a pass to Antonio Brown for a first down on the game’s last drive. On third-and-six, the Jets needed one more stop to have a chance — to get the ball back and hope Sanchez could lead one more miracle drive that would set up a matchup against Green Bay two weeks from now in Dallas. They didn’t get it.
If Braylon Edwards’s backflips last week summed up the feelings of Jets fans, Ryan throwing his headset to the ground late in the fourth quarter did the same this week. Final score: Steelers 24, Jets 19.
And so the Jets season ends, once again, in the AFC Championship Game. That’s not a disastrous finish by most standards, but for a team whose stated goal during the premiere of Hard Knocks back in August was to lead the league in bleeping wins, it’s a disappointing one, nonetheless.