AFC title shame sticks with Jets

Seven months later, Sione Pouha still can't delete the image from his mind. He was so close to chasing down Ben Roethlisberger on that frigid night in Pittsburgh, so close to disrupting the play that ended the New York Jets' season.

"What if I had run an extra sprint during that week in practice?" the big nose tackle wondered on a recent day in training camp. "There are so many what-ifs. What if I hit him? What if I was an inch closer? I could've disturbed the pass."

The third-down pass, an on-the-run, 14-yard completion to Antonio Brown with two minutes to play, clinched the Steelers' 24-19 victory in the AFC Championship Game.

More haunting memories: Linebacker David Harris was the closest defender to Brown, arriving too late in the Jets' Cover 3 zone. If Harris had reacted a split-second quicker to Roethlisberger, if he had been able to eliminate just one step in his pass drop ...

"I'm pretty sure everybody in that game had a what-if moment," Harris said. "He beat me by one or two yards. Like I said, a what-if moment."

The Jets have stockpiled more than most because they've lost two consecutive conference championships. Blessing or curse? Take your pick.

Since 1980, only five teams have dropped back-to-back title games, with just one -- the 1994 San Francisco 49ers -- rebounding to win the Super Bowl the following year.

In one week, the Jets will set out to create their own San Francisco Treat. They open with the Dallas Cowboys, and their plan is to end the season in Indianapolis, the site of Super Bowl XLVI. Anything less will be considered a bust.

If coming so close to a championship steels a team's determination, as some believe, the Jets should be machete sharp.

"Those losses are always in the back of your mind," cornerback Darrelle Revis said. "I'm sure other people have different definitions on how they think of those two losses. Mine is failure."

What makes them tougher to digest is that the defense, the team's calling card, suffered 30-minute meltdowns in each contest. In the title game in 2009, the Jets lost a second-half track meet to Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. In Pittsburgh, it was more like a mixed martial arts beatdown in the first half.

Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was asked how long it took to bury the Pittsburgh game.

"Are you making the assumption I'm over it?" he asked, not trying to be funny. "It took me awhile to sit down and stomach the tape, and when we finally watched it, it was hard to watch."

That should make the Jets better, no?

After all, it's largely the same team that walked off the frozen turf last January at Heinz Field -- a total of 19 returning starters. There has to be a sense of urgency. Even though the Jets are built for the long haul, with quarterback Mark Sanchez and their best players still in the prime of their careers, the window doesn't stay open forever.

"Hopefully, we won't let it happen again," guard Matt Slauson said. "We can't afford to lose another championship game."

The Philadelphia Eagles lost three straight NFC title games in the early 2000s, but they demonstrated rare staying power by capturing the fourth -- and losing the Super Bowl to the New England Patriots.

What the Jets don't want is to be the '88 Cleveland Browns, getting bounced out in the wild-card round after back-to-back losses in the AFC title game. They were coached by Marty Schottenheimer, whose son, Brian, is the Jets' offensive coordinator.

The Jets are focused on the now, but they can't help but think about what might have been. Schottenheimer laments his third-and-17 call at the end of the first half, a pass play that was blown up by a blitz. Sanchez was sacked and fumbled, and the Steelers returned it for a touchdown to make it 24-0.

If he had opted for a clock-killing running play, would that have made the difference in the game? We'll never know. What if LaDainian Tomlinson had tried one of his famous leaps on fourth down from the Steelers' 1 instead of trying to burrow through a swarm of bodies? What if Sanchez had called timeout when his headset malfunctioned instead of rushing a play at the goal line?

"A play here, a play there. An inch here, an inch there. A minute longer," Pouha said. "There are a lot of what-ifs. That's what's great about having a new season ahead of you. You try to cross off as many what-ifs as possible."