EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Just as surely as the Pittsburgh Steelers fans showed up at MetLife Stadium, the New York Jets players did not. Surprised? No, an educated football observer was not surprised.
That observer understood that the Pittsburgh fan base travels through snow, sleet and 0-4 starts, and that the Jets often treat the arrival of an inferior opponent as another golden opportunity to break its own crowd's heart.
That's what went down on a certain level Sunday, when men, women and children, dressed in their faded Wayne Chrebet jerseys, fought the visiting Steelers masses for control of the building, and did so -- at least early in the day -- with a heightened sense of enthusiasm not often attached to a 3-2 team.
The people who love the Jets were loving the fact that the Giants were 0-6, the same Giants who inspired the beginning of the end of Rex Ryan as we knew him two years ago by tearing down his tough-talking act on Christmas Eve. The same Giants who have won four Super Bowl titles, including two under the current Tom Coughlin-Eli Manning administration, since the Jets claimed their one-and-done in a different life.
Yes, this was going to be a Jets fan's day in the sun, a day to mock all the tradition-rich NFL powers that so often mocked him or her. The Steelers, who had won six Super Bowls since the Jets Joe-Willied the Baltimore Colts, were a complete mess. Big Ben Roethlisberger had no offensive line or running game to speak of, and the very black-and-gold defense that had long represented a black-and-blue region hadn't managed a single takeaway in four games.
But something unfunny happened on the way to a 4-2 record and a divisional death-match next week with the New England Patriots. Six days after proving they weren't nearly as dreadful as many (this outlet included) thought they were, the Jets reminded everyone that they still aren't worth a serious look, either.
"I felt like everything we wanted was there for us," Jets guard Willie Colon said. "We slipped up."
Big time. The Steelers, Ryan said, "played exactly how we thought they would."
So did the Jets. They're not the worst team in the market, never mind the league, but a nationally televised road victory over 1-4 Atlanta inspired too many amateur-hour declarations that the Jets were back, baby, and ready to actually win two games in a row.
They didn't win that second consecutive game Sunday; in fact, they didn't even score a touchdown in the 19-6 defeat. These weren't your father's Steel Curtain Steelers, or the Steelers who beat the Jets in the AFC Championship Game three seasons ago, or even the Steelers who pounded the Jets last year.
These were the Steelers who had surrendered 74 points in their past two losses, including 34 to the Vikings.
"Their record," Jets QB Geno Smith said, "doesn't indicate the type of team they are."
Yes it does, and you don't need a Bill Parcells quote to back that up. The Jets found all sorts of ways to lose to that winless team, anyway.
Defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson whiffed on Roethlisberger for what would've been an early safety and 2-0 first-inning lead, and soon enough Big Ben was playing like a quarterback on a third Super Bowl run.
Geno Smith? The rookie matched up against Pittsburgh's 76-year-old yoda, Dick LeBeau?
He threw a pair of brutal interceptions in the second half, the first one coming on a floater into triple coverage to a third-string tight end, Konrad Reuland, who had been promoted into action only after Kellen Winslow was suspended for performance-enhancing drug use.
The Jets were down 16-6 and driving toward a potential touchdown when the rookie made the rookie mistake, or the Eli Manning mistake, and landed the first-down pass in the arms of Ryan Clark. Smith swore that he was trying to heave it over everyone's head, but the film never lies.
"We were beaten by a team that was better than us today," Smith said.
But why? Why was Pittsburgh the better team Sunday when the Jets had home-field advantage and the benefit of that confidence-building victory over the Falcons?
It couldn't have been Bill Cowher's presence in the CBS booth, of course. Ryan fingered the bye week as the force that suddenly restored the Steelers as a temporary powerhouse.
"We got everything we told our team we would get," the losing coach said, "and that's their very best."
The Jets got a lot of quick passes from Big Ben, and a lot of different looks from a defensive coach, LeBeau, and a head coach, Mike Tomlin, who seem to get smarter when Ryan is on the other side of the field.
Truth is, Rex wasn't supposed to start out 3-3 in a season that was pre-booked for a 4-12 finish, and he doesn't need to apologize for the combined 3-13 record of the three teams (Tampa Bay, Buffalo, and Atlanta) his Jets have beaten.
But people got swept away with Ryan after five games, forgetting that he got his starting quarterback (Mark Sanchez) knocked out for the year for no good reason, and that the Patriots, Bengals and Saints were lined up behind Pittsburgh and waiting to put Rex's team back in its place.
Just because the Jets aren't as terrible as the terrible towels that scores of Steelers fans were waving in MetLife Stadium on Sunday doesn't mean they're going to be some modern-day answer to the Miracle Mets.
In the end, the Jets are just good enough to make this lost football season in New York mildly interesting. And they're just bad enough to break their fans' hearts for old times' sake.