PITTSBURGH -- His eyes empty and moist, his face beaten up by the bitter cold, Rex Ryan looked like a captain who had just run his ship aground on the banks of the Allegheny. The coach of the New York Jets wore the mask of a haunted man for good reason.
He did not have his team ready to play the AFC Championship Game at Heinz Field, and that is a regret he will carry to his coaching grave.
Behind the force of his larger-than-life personality, Ryan drove the Jets to a second straight appearance in football's final four. His audacious belief in himself and his players made the Jets a popular pick to return to the Super Bowl for the first time in 42 years, and to leave the big game the way Joe Willie Namath left his, jabbing their victorious index fingers into a forever corner of NFL lore.
But after pushing all the right human buttons in Rounds 1 and 2, inspiring his Jets to knock out Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, Ryan suddenly lost the pulse of his team. The stunning disconnect between coach and player allowed the Pittsburgh Steelers to score the first 24 points of the game, and ultimately guaranteed that a second-half rally would save face, but not the season.
"We played a good half," an emotional Ryan said. "We just never played a good game."
Rex has to take the fall for that. His chief responsibility as head coach is to have his team ready to play, and yet the Jets were a lifeless mess in the first half, finding inspiration in absolutely nothing.
Their spiritual force in New England, Dennis Byrd, was on the sideline and at midfield for the opening toss, and still the Jets came out flatter than they've been since that bygone December blowout in Foxborough, Mass.
The Jets' defense was playing flag football out there, lunging and grabbing for air, looking like a unit prepping itself for the Pro Bowl instead of the Super Bowl.
"The tackling," Ryan said, "that's not up to our standards by any stretch of the imagination."
Bart Scott, the one who couldn't wait to get to Pittsburgh, the one who talks like his pro wrestling heroes, kept whiffing on tackles and playing as if he was ordered to lose by some WWE script. Pittsburgh's Rashard Mendenhall ran like an enraged Jim Brown, barreling away for 95 yards in the first half compared with the Jets' grand total of 1. The Steelers had 135 in all in the first 30 minutes despite losing their center, Maurkice Pouncey, on the first scoring drive.
"To come out as flat as we did against such a great franchise and such a great team," Mark Sanchez said, "a tough team, one of the toughest -- if not the toughest -- we played all year, it just doesn't work."
Not even close.
Sanchez said he had no idea how or why the Jets could be flat for a conference championship game, and Darrelle Revis said the same. Nobody wanted to admit the obvious, that the Jets were emotionally drained after spilling three rivers of blood, sweat and tears all over New England.
Did the apocalyptic conquest of Brady and Bill Belichick -- a signature moment for a franchise that has only a few -- turn out to be Pyrrhic in form?
No matter what, Ryan can't use it as an excuse. The 2004 Red Sox exorcised 86 years of demons and doubts by erasing an 0-3 American League Championship Series deficit and finally overcoming their tormentors, the New York Yankees, in a decidedly historic way.
Those Red Sox had no problem transitioning from sports' most heated rivalry to the next round on the October schedule: They swept a team they didn't hate, St. Louis, to win the World Series and complete one of the greatest baseball stories ever told.
The Jets? They made it personal against Manning's Colts and Brady's Patriots, and decided to make it all about football against Ben Roethlisberger's Steelers, a psychological game plan doomed to fail.
"They were ready," Revis said, "and we weren't."
Ryan promised his players at halftime that the game would settle down, that the fates would turn in their favor, and it was his first good call of the night. In the second half Sanchez got hot and the Steelers got nervous, retreating into a prevent offense and desperately trying to bleed time from the clock.
Shonn Greene was pounding away at a tiring Pittsburgh defense, leaving the Jets with a second-and-goal at the Steelers' 1-yard line in the middle of the fourth quarter, ready to make it a 24-17 game. But against the grain of common sense, Brian Schottenheimer took the ball out of Greene's hands. The offensive coordinator called for two straight pass plays (both incompletions) and then a run up the gut for LaDainian Tomlinson, who was stopped for no gain.
Yes, Big Ben fumbled the next snap for a safety and, yes, Sanchez did drive the Jets in for a touchdown to make it 24-19 with 3:06 to play. But the Jets needed seven points, not two, when Pittsburgh made a goal-line stand out of its Steel Curtain past. Those five points were the difference between overtime and an indelible defeat.
"It cuts your heart out," Ryan said.
The Jets had one last chance to make a stop on third-and-6 with two minutes left. Only Roethlisberger isn't Manning or Brady, both statuesque passers who crack and crumble under the first hint of pressure. So with the Jets out of timeouts and with millions of witnesses assuming the Steelers would run the ball to run the clock, Mike Tomlin put his quarterback in the shotgun and took a wild gamble.
He asked Big Ben to throw the ball, and escape the pocket and throw the ball Big Ben did, completing the 14-yarder to Antonio Brown that compelled Ryan to rip off his cap and headset and fire them into the ground.
As it turned out, the 2010 Jets weren't going to be the 2007 Giants after all.
"We're going to chase that Super Bowl," Ryan swore afterward. "We're going to chase it until we get it, and then we'll chase after that again."
Ryan didn't help end the chase Sunday night, not when he put a team on the field that wasn't fully prepared to compete. Two days after his 42-point loss in December to the Patriots, Ryan buried the game ball.
Today he gets to bury the season.