It was just past 9:30 on the evening of Jan. 23, 2011, the end of a bitter, bruising battle on the grass at Heinz Field. There were 66,662 people in the crowd, most of them clad in black, most of them waving Terrible Towels. But there was also a small but vocal contingent of invaders wearing green.
They demanded to be heard as the two-minute warning arrived.
What they couldn’t possibly know was, they were about to enjoy the last truly relevant moments in their lives as Jets fans for a long, long while. They wouldn’t have believed you anyway. This was the climax of Year 2 of the Rex Ryan Era. This was a second straight appearance in the AFC Championship game. They Jets had won 11 games, beaten the Colts at Indianapolis and the Patriots in New England.
“CAN’T WAIT!” Bart Scott had famously chanted on ESPN as the final seconds of that Patriots vanquishing in Foxborough had wound down and it seemed to embody the spirit of the whole franchise, from the chatty coach to the engaging players to a fan base that, for one of the few times in its existence, wasn’t eternally waiting for the other shoe to drop. So even when the Jets fell behind the Steelers 24-0, they were not glum. They were not grim. They believed the Jets could come back.
And the Jets had come back.
It was 24-19 now. There were two minutes left. The Steelers had third-and-6 at the Jets 40. Get a stop, the Jets would have about a minute and a half to finish off the fairy tale — and at this time in their history, Jets fans believed that could happen. They believed in Ryan. They believed in Mark Sanchez.
Then Ben Roethlisberger dropped back, bought just enough time that a young wide receiver named Antonio Brown broke free. Fourteen yards later the Steelers were in the clear. They’d take a couple of knees. They’d go to another Super Bowl. The Jets flew home to Jersey.
“I defy anyone to tell me we won’t be right back here again next year,” Ryan declared afterward.
And, well …
It’s going to be hard to think of anything else this Sunday when the Steelers visit MetLife Stadium. Oh, they’ll likely be wearing white instead of black, and the Jets will go with the home greens. Roethlisberger hasn’t played since Week 1. Brown hasn’t played since Week 2, and that was a brief, ill-fated cameo with the Pats. The Jets have an entirely different team. Ryan and Sanchez do TV, Scott does radio. And there have been times this year when the Jets have felt about as far removed from the AFC Championship as a team can possibly feel.
But if you are a Jets fan, watch Sunday’s game and just try NOT thinking of that chilly Sunday in Pittsburgh almost nine years ago. The Jets haven’t been back to the playoffs since, have sniffed them only once, have somehow become embroiled in a playoff drought that is increasingly familiar to the one they endured from 1970-80. It’s amazing how bad decades can fly by when you’re having no fun.
Ryan’s garrulous personality has been replaced by Todd Bowles’ steely glare and now Adam Gase staring dead-eyed at his play sheet. The Jets, who under Ryan played with swagger and flair, have spend too much of the past near-decade wandering in a pusillanimous fog. The Steelers, of course, have marched merrily along because they are the Steelers and that is what they do.
The teams have actually played four times since then, the Steelers winning three times in unremarkable fashion. The Jets are 5-20 all time against the Steelers, including two awful playoff losses. One was the Doug Brien game. That one was bad enough.
The other was Jan. 23, 2011. Almost nine years ago. Nine years that feel like 90 some days.
For more on the Jets, listen to the latest episode of the “Gang’s All Here” podcast: