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Jets Climb Back, Fall Short in Pittsburgh, 24-19

Without question the Jets made major strides this season and elevated themselves into NFL postseason players for years to come.

But also without question, they will have to wait another year, not another two weeks, to make their next statement about the high goal head coach Rex Ryan and they had set out for themselves in the 2010 season.

"Again, our goal for next year, I have news for you, it won't change and it'll never change," Ryan said. "We're going to chase that Super Bowl, we're going to chase it until we get it and we're going to chase it after that again."

Pittsburgh, its offense and defense, came out fired up in front of its club-record-setting, Terrible Towel-twirling faithful. For the first half the Jets had no answer. For the second half, they had too far to climb. The result was a surprisingly close 24-19 triumph by the Steelers in tonight's AFC Championship Game.

So the Jets will not be going to Dallas to play Green Bay in Super Bowl XLV. They will not be able to provide a trophycase mate for their SB III Lombardi Trophy. They could not prevail in their second straight conference title game. The Big Dance continued to elude multiyear veterans LaDainian Tomlinson, Jason Taylor and Shaun Ellis.

"This is the toughest loss I've ever been a part of," Taylor said. "The first half was just such a bad display of football by us. Mendenhall, while he's a quality runner, we made him look even better. In the AFC Championship Game you can't play 30 minutes. That'll get you beat."

But the ride was a memorable and at times spectacular one. The Jets finished the season with a 13-6 record, tying the club mark for most victories in a season. They got a little more experience with Mark Sanchez at the offense's helm, with the defense's players in the Ryan/Mike Pettine scheme.

And they have an even greater hunger to close the gap, from a 13-point loss to the Colts last  year to this year's five-pointer, and to climb over the top and crash the Super Bowl party.

Out of it for virtually all the first  half, the Jets came out in the third quarter with pep in their step. They took the opening kickoff 90 yards in five plays, the largest play being the last, a Sanchez rollout and downfield strike to a wide-open Santonio Holmes, back in the town that toasted him as the Super Bowl MVP two years ago, past S Ryan Clark for the 45-yard score to cut the deficit to 24-10.

"They jumped out early and had momentum, no doubt," Sanchez said. "The thing I kept telling myself was 'Hang in there.' We definitely gave the right kind of effort in the second half. It just wasn't there in the first half."

The Jets' specialists gave back a golden opportunity on the Steelers' next drive when rookie Jamaal Westerman got great penetration but didn't get a finger on Jeremy Kapinos' punt, instead getting a piece of Kapinos for a running-into-the-kicker penalty that gave the hosts a first down in Jets territory.

But the defense returned the favor as Drew Coleman harassed Roethlisberger into a long interception by S Brodney Pool. With 1½ quarters remaining in regulation, a window of opportunity was now open.

And the Jets kept it open by moving more crisply down the field to the Steelers 2 with 8½ minutes left. But on their last three downs, Sanchez threw two incompletions and Tomlinson was stopped for no gain on fourth down. Seventeen plays, 80 yards and 8:06 of clock time produced no points.

But one play later the Jets scored their second safety in two visits to Pittsburgh when Roethlisberger fumbled the snap from his 1 and was tackled in his end zone. That made it 24-12 and the Jets immediately got the ball back with half the fourth quarter remaining.

The Steelers gave ground grudgingly but the Jets took it and moved the chains all the way to the Pittsburgh 4, from where Sanchez slung a pass that Jerricho Cotchery — playing after he was reported to be questionable to return with a hamstring injury — made the fingertip grab and run into the end zone. With 3:06 left, the Jets were five points down. Now they just needed the ball.

But Pitt kept it, forcing the Jets to burn all three timeouts. With two minutes left, the Jets defense faced third-and-6 at their 40. Roethlisberger took the snap in the shotgun, rolled right and found rookie WR Antonio Brown for 13 yards. And that was the spike in the Jets' hearts for this season.

The Jets won the opening coin toss, deferred until the second half, and the Steelers were off and running beneath the canopy of their yellow Terrible Towel-twirling fans. Ben Roethlisberger and RB Rashard Mendenhall led a 15-play, 66-yard, 9:06 march to Mendenhall's 1-foot TD stretch, despite Bart Scott's tackle attempt and a 7-0 lead.

The Jets did a little maneuvering of their own but had to punt after seven plays. Then the defense came up big, not only stopping Big Ben on fourth-and-1 at the Jets 32 but turning him over. And the takeaway man was LB Bryan Thomas, who recorded the first interception of his nine-year career when he plucked the pass that was deflected off of Mendenhall.

But Mendenhall made up for it after a shanked 29-yard Steve Weatherford punt with a 35-yard run down the right sideline out of David Harris grasp, then a 13-yard spinner to the 6, before the Jets' defense buckled down and forced the hosts to settle for Shaun Suisham's 20-yard field goal and a 10-0 lead with 6:51 to play in the half.

Another three-and-out by the Jets offense, with Sanchez's intermediate third-down pass for Cotchery batted down by LB Brett Keisel, followed by another short (33-yard) punt, started the home side off to its second TD. The score came on a well-designed play on which Roethlisberger rolled to his right, two Jets defenders were covering two receivers, and Big Ben legged it across the goal line standing for a 2-yard score and a 17-0 lead.

The visitors took over at the two-minute warning with the idea of striking before the intermission. Instead, disaster struck when Ike Taylor blitzed, hit Sanchez from the back and stripped him of the ball, with CB William Gay picking up the ball and rolling into the end zone for a 19-yard fumble-return score and a 24-0 lead.

That was the first FR touchdown by a Jets opponent since Jason Taylor, now a Jet, did it for Miami in the Meadowlands last year. And it was the first by an opponent in the playoffs since New England's Johnny Rembert took a fumbled kickoff return 15 yards in 1985.

It was not the first 30 minutes the Jets envisioned for themselves or their fans. They salvaged a little out of it by driving close enough for Nick Folk's 42-yard field goal with nine seconds left in the half. But the 24-3 deficit at intermission was still the largest in franchise playoff history, and there had been only two larger comebacks for victory in NFL postseason annals. That was the task ahead of the Green & White in the final 30 minutes.

"We played a good half, we just never played a good game," Ryan said. "You have to give Pittsburgh credit. That's a heck of a football team there and if you plan on beating them, you better put four quarters together and we didn't do that today. I thought we were going to win the game, that's the first time in that situation that our defense hasn't responded and gotten the big stop to give our offense a chance to win the game. Obviously there's a huge amount of disappointment for us but like I say, I'm proud of our team. I don't think there are many teams that could have gone through what we did and got here and almost pull out another one."

Game Notes

Sanchez finished 20-for-33 passing for 233 yards and two TDs. Roethlisberger was 10-for-19 for 133 with two interceptions. ... Bryan Thomas' INT was the first in 152 regular- and postseason games in his career. ... Holmes' 45-yard touchdown reception from Sanchez was the Jets' longest in a playoff game since Sanchez-to-Braylon Edwards for 80 yards at Indianapolis in last year's AFC title game. The Jets actually outgained the Steelers, 289 yards to 287, after the hosts had dominating first-half advantages of 231-50 in total yardage, 135-1 in rushing yardage, 16-5 in first downs, and 21:04-8:56 in possession time. ... The last time the Jets had 1 rushing yard in the first half was in Game 14 in 2000 in a Sunday-nighter at Oakland. ... The Jets didn't score a first-quarter offensive touchdown for the 15th straight game. The last opening-period TD was Brad Smith's kickoff-return score to open the Jets' win at Heinz Field on Dec. 19.

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