The last step is always the hardest to take.
For the Jets, the stage was set on Sunday night.
Set for the team to return to football’s grandest venue for the first time in 42 years; set for Rex Ryan to seize his place in Gotham legend; set for the franchise and its tortured fans to shrug off the derisive mantra that has haunted it for four decades—Same Old Jets.
Instead, after the club’s frenetic second-half rally failed to overcome a disastrous opening 30 minutes, it’s the Pittsburgh Steelers—the NFL’s version of Microsoft—that will face the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV in Dallas.
Their own running back, Rashard Mendenhall, ran wild, tearing off 121 yards against Ryan’s vaunted defense, the most anyone has rushed for against the Jets in two seasons.
Naked without a reliable running game, quarterback Mark Sanchez performed admirably for long stretches of the contest, but his fumble just before halftime—returned for a score by Pittsburgh’s William Gay—proved debilitating.
The Jets were left to wonder if they had once again simply made things too hard on themselves.
For the second straight year, New York qualified for the playoffs as the AFC's No. 6 seed, giving them a path to the Super Bowl that only four teams in league history have successfully traversed, and only one as the sixth seed.
New York’s road was made even more daunting by having to face a murderer’s row of Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger have combined to play in every Super Bowl since 2003.
Ryan’s defensive schemes confounded the first two, but nothing in the coach’s arsenal could contain Roethlisberger, who made plays every way and from every angle, as is his wont.
For the Pittsburgh quarterback, a year that began under a cloud of sexual assault charges and included a four-game suspension to start the season will end, once again, on the league’s biggest stage.
After the loss, Ryan was his usual defiant self: "I would change the outcome of this game and that's the only thing I would change. We don't need to apologize to anybody. We'll be back; you'll see.”
Maybe. But in sports, windows never remain open forever.
As Ryan is surely aware, history is filled with uplifting tales of teams that tasted bitter disappointment—sometimes repeatedly—before winning championships. But it’s also littered with enjoyable teams that, for whatever reason, were never quite good enough.
In two seasons at the helm, Ryan has undeniably changed the culture of the franchise. But having made the leap from perennial punch line to legitimate title threat, these Jets must take smaller, harder steps to reach the Super Bowl.
Assuming a labor stoppage can be avoided and next season is played as scheduled, the Jets face a series of personnel decisions, beginning with their own free agents, whose ranks include receivers Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes and do-everything man Brad Smith.
Ryan and the Jets must also confront the reality that the list of teams to capture the Lombardi Trophy without an elite quarterback is a short one, and accept that the team is unlikely to take the next step until its signal-caller can be counted on to win games—and not merely avoid losing them.
A season that began with hard knocks and brash talk in August, was forged by a succession of daring escapes in November and a crisis of confidence in December, culminated in a sublime January run ending within a score of the ultimate destination.
The road to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis begins on Monday morning.
For Gang Green, it must begin with a vow to win the AFC East and secure a playoff bye and home-field advantage. Let Manning, Brady or Big Ben come to them. Let a more polished, more mature team be waiting.
Keep knocking on the door. Sooner or later, you might knock it down.