Jets emotional vein simply tapped out

Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez played well but New York was doomed by a slow start. AP Photo/Matt Slocum

PITTSBURGH -- A week earlier, the New York Jets carried on as though they'd won the Super Bowl.

They went into Gillette Stadium and did the unfathomable. They made Tom Brady look average and destroyed the mighty New England Patriots a month after losing to them 45-3 on the same grounds.

The Jets jumped into the stands to cavort with their fans, the Patriots' faithful having filed through the exits long before. The Jets ran around with their arms outstretched like airplanes. Braylon Edwards did a roundhouse backflip. Patriots receiver Deion Branch called them "classless."

You half expected to hear somebody in green and white exclaim "I'm going to Disney World!" to signal the end of the season. Of course, the Super Bowl used to be followed with a carefree exhibition where players revel in their success and go through the motions.

Fittingly, the Jets followed up their personal Super Bowl with a performance worthy of the Pro Bowl -- not in terms of star power, but with a lack of purpose.

For the first 30 minutes of Sunday night's AFC Championship Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field, the Jets played like they were still hung over from their victory in Foxborough, Mass.

The Jets were flatter than old champagne through the first half and watched passively as the Steelers scored the first 24 points. The Jets finally snapped to attention at the intermission and dominated the Steelers for much of the second half.

But the Jets couldn't overcome their horrible two quarters and lost 24-19. For the second season under Rex Ryan, they were eliminated one step short of the Super Bowl.

But the Jets sure didn't play like they'd been there before -- not in the first half anyway.

"No determination, no focus in every single phase," Jets safety James Ihedigbo muttered.

"It just wasn't us. It wasn't New York Jet football."

Perhaps it's one of those unexplained sports phenomena. The Jets certainly knew the importance of Sunday's game. One more victory and they were headed to the Super Bowl.

But they didn't answer the call. Instead, there was a dial tone.

"We knew what was on the line," Jets linebacker David Harris said. "I don't know what to say."

To a man, the Jets were unable to explain their inability to compete in the first half.

Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall left cleat marks all over the defense. Their poor tackling was unforgivable. Mendenhall had 95 yards and a touchdown before halftime. The Steelers dictated time of possession, keeping the ball for 21 minutes, 4 seconds.

Last week, Jets linebacker Bart Scott ridiculed the Patriots' defense for not being able to stop a nosebleed. Against the Steelers, the Jets couldn't patch a paper cut with a roll of duct tape.

The Jets' offense, meanwhile, gained 1 rushing yard by halftime. LaDainian Tomlinson had two carries for 1 yard. Shonn Greene had two carries for 4 yards.

"We didn't step on the field, playing the way we want to play," Harris said. "They jumped on us, had us on our heels."

The Jets played like they were emotionally spent, which is how they prepared for the game, too.

Unlike the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Jets displayed almost none of their distinctive spunk. They went from targeting Peyton Manning and Brady and Wes Welker to a deferential tone for the Steelers. Jets defensive lineman Trevor Pryce said it was an "honor and a privilege to play against" Ben Roethlisberger.

There was no edge throughout the week at the Jets' training facility in Florham Park, N.J.

The Jets insisted they'd be ready.

They clearly were not.

Fevered emotions are nearly impossible to maintain week after week, especially against a succession of nasty opponents on the road. That's a reason why it's such a feat when a wild-card team reaches the Super Bowl.

"It's three games to get to the Super Bowl," Scott countered. "It was just one more game."

Scott delivered one of the great postgame interviews after eliminating the Patriots. He was a combination of thrilled and angry. In reference to the Steelers, he barked "Can't wait!"

But the Jets sure seemed to wait 30 minutes before they got their heads into the game.

Intensity is difficult to tap again and again until the vein collapses. Sometimes it gets demanding to find more villains to despise. You can't ask Dennis Byrd to deliver the same pregame speech and have it make an impact.

The Jets did pull themselves together at halftime and cobbled together an admirable effort through the third and fourth quarters.

Mark Sanchez played another solid road playoff game and outperformed Roethlisberger as a passer. Sanchez completed 20 of his 33 throws for 233 yards and two touchdowns for a 102.2 passer rating. Roethlisberger was 10-of-19 for 133 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions and a 35.5 rating.

Sanchez, a revitalized ground game and a suddenly conscious defense gave the Jets a chance. They got within a touchdown with 3:06 to play, when Sanchez connected with Jerricho Cotchery.

But the Jets frittered away a better opportunity nearly five minutes earlier. The Jets had first and goal on the 2-yard line but couldn't score. A 17-play drive ended on the 1-yard line after two incomplete passes and a pair of stuffed runs. The passes were curious plays called by offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, especially with Green trucking defenders.

A touchdown there and the Jets would have had more wiggle room.

"We had opportunities to make a comeback in the second half," Jets tight end Dustin Keller said. "Obviously, everybody's going to look at the first half and say 'If it wasn't for this and that,' but we still had an opportunity to win this game in the second half."

The Jets deserve credit for gathering themselves and not getting totally blown out. They did outscore the Steelers 16-0 in the second half.

But those first 30, flat minutes doomed them.

"It would be nice to take that first half back and come out better than we did and what we showed," Jets safety Brodney Pool said. "It just shows you can't come out flat at the beginning of a game like we did an expect to win."