Jets not strangers in this title game

As a fan of any team haunted by a drought of Biblical depth, it is always easier to play these games with house money and to minimize your emotional investment in the final score.

Take last year's AFC title game, where the long-suffering fans of the New York Jets had a perfect setup in Peyton's place. They didn't need to win that game in Indianapolis, not with a rookie quarterback and a rookie coach, and not after Rex Ryan publicly eliminated his 7-7 team from playoff contention before -- voila -- the Jets got damn hot and damn lucky at the same time.

Peyton Manning's Colts had once threatened to go 16-0 and were favored to win it all. The Jets? They could hardly believe they had a shot to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since the final days of the Johnson Administration.

"Things were going so fast," Mark Sanchez said, "and you're just trying to hold on."

One year later, things aren't going so fast at all. In fact, this excruciating walkup to the final four has lasted longer than the French and Indian War.

The reason? These Jets aren't accidental tourists who merrily stumbled upon the AFC Championship Game. Their players, coaches and fans are slowly but surely trudging toward their point of no return, burdened by this cold and unassailable fact:

They absolutely, positively have to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers and land in the Super Bowl.

Losing this game -- after toppling the evil empire in New England -- would be tantamount to the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team losing to Finland in the Lake Placid final after dismantling the Soviets' Big Red Machine in the semis (which, of course, didn't happen).

"We were just a quarter-and-a-half away [last year]," Sanchez said. "I mean, it's crazy. It blows your mind when you think about it."

If that defeat in Indy blew Sanchez's mind, then a defeat at Heinz Field would break his heart. These Jets have already won there. They arrive in this year's AFC Championship Game with a much better team than the one that arrived in last year's, and they're on the same kind of good-karma roll the 2007 Giants were on before they reached the Super Bowl, faced the 18-0 Patriots and scored what Giants owner John Mara called "the greatest victory in the history of this franchise, without question."

A victory over the Steelers won't represent the Jets' greatest moment; Joe Willie Namath still owns the patent on that one. But this could be the franchise's most appropriate victory ever.

They weren't meant to win their previous AFC title games in the Miami mud pit, in the Mile High winds of Denver and in the thunderously loud belly of Lucas Oil Stadium.

Pittsburgh is a different story. Pittsburgh is the new Titletown. Pittsburgh is the only franchise with six Super Bowl trophies.

More than anything, Pittsburgh is the polar opposite of everything the New York Jets have been.

The Steelers have made it to the conference championship game a staggering 15 times, playing a man's game in a man's town with a manly approach.

It's fitting that the Jets have to beat them in Pittsburgh to end their 42-year Super Bowl wait. Fans might have considered the Patriots and Foxborough as the more appropriate opponent and site to act as the Jets' gateway to the big game, but the ultimate losers should have to conquer the ultimate winners, and the Steelers have done more winning over the decades -- and in recent years -- than the Patriots have done.

And here's the thing: The Jets are a team of combustible personalities fired up by a combustible coach.

There's no guarantee they'll ever again recapture the can-do chemistry that defines them right now.

The last time the Jets had such chemistry, Bill Parcells coached them to a 10-0 third-quarter lead in the AFC title game in Denver before everything fell apart. On the phone the other day, Parcells called that loss "my saddest day in professional football."

His Jets never recovered, and deep down, Ryan knows his team might never recover from a defeat in Pittsburgh. As a defensive coordinator in Baltimore and as the head coach of the Jets, Ryan is 0-2 in the last two conference championship games.

"I don't know if I can handle not winning it," he said. "I need to win this game."

They all need to win this game. Pittsburgh is beatable; the Jets have already proved that. They've already proved that they're far stronger than the Herm Edwards team that lost a playoff game at Heinz Field because the kicker, Doug Brien, couldn't get the Jets home.

No, this isn't last year at Indy, not even close. "We can't come up short this time," Sanchez said.

For a Jets fan, that makes Sunday one very tough day. There's no hedging your emotional bets this time. There's no wait-'til-next-year pillow to cushion the potential fall, because you don't need to ask Parcells to understand that next year in sports almost never comes.

This is next year, the 6:30 kickoff at Heinz Field. As far as reaching the Super Bowl, the Jets have the requisite talent.

America's about to find out if they have the requisite nerve.