Rex Ryan was on the phone in his office when someone walked in and asked him the question that helped shape the New York Jets' winning season.

"Give a thumbs-up if you want Santonio Holmes," was the message from general manager Mike Tannenbaum, "and a thumbs-down if you don't."

Ryan hung up the phone and never felt so fleet of foot. The Jets coach rumbled up the stairs, his pulse racing, and charged into Tannenbaum's office with a one-word answer.

"Absolutely," Ryan said excitedly.

That was all Tannenbaum needed to hear. Not long after that huge thumbs-up from Ryan last April, Holmes — Pittsburgh's former Super Bowl MVP — was a member of the Jets for the incredibly low price of a fifth-round draft pick.

"I just wanted him," Ryan said. "I never cared about the compensation. Let Tannenbaum figure that out. I just knew that anybody that beat me that bad, that I'd just as soon have him on our team. Three games in a row when I was in Baltimore, he beat us."

Plenty of teams have felt that way about Holmes in an already productive young career that was highlighted by his diving, tiptoed catch in the corner of the end zone to give Pittsburgh the go-ahead score over Arizona in the 2009 Super Bowl.

"I'm sure everybody had the same feeling I did, was you remember that Super Bowl and how when the game was on the line, he was begging his teammates to give him a chance, to give him the football," Ryan said. "It's kind of like a guy who says, 'Hit the ball to me.' That's Santonio Holmes."

But, even now, it amazes Holmes sometimes that he's in green and white and not black and gold anymore.

"The main thing that went through my mind was what caused this to happen?" Holmes recalled. "I really didn't ask any questions when it happened. I just accepted what was going on."

Just two years after leading the Steelers to a Super Bowl win, Holmes has a chance to beat his former team and send the Jets to their first title game since 1969. Not that he's looking for revenge, or so he says.

"I think the personal game is out of the way," Holmes said, referring to New York's 22-17 win at Pittsburgh in Week 15. "I got a chance to beat those guys the first time around. This time it means everything, everything for myself, for this team, for this organization. We're trying to get to the Super Bowl. I don't care about the Steelers right now. Those guys are in my team's way, which is the New York Jets."

But it's not just a case of forgive and forget. After all, the Steelers basically dumped a talented young receiver who was coming off a season in which he set career highs with 79 catches and 1,248 yards receiving.

"Everything personal that happened (will be reflected) two or three weeks after," he said. "If we win the Super Bowl, then everything is personal. That's a slap back in those guys' face for trading me."

For all his talent, the fact is Holmes had his share of troubles in Pittsburgh.

There was a lawsuit in Florida from a woman who claimed he threw a glass at her, cutting her above the eye. He was arrested in 2008 for possession of marijuana and involved in a domestic violence incident in 2006; the misdemeanor charges were later dismissed. He was also accused of telling a fan to "kill urself" on his Twitter page, but implied that his account was hacked.

Apparently, it was all baggage the Steelers got tired of hauling around.

"Just kind of amazement," Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said of when he heard about the trade. "I was wondering what was going on, what happened? Just a lot of questions."

The Steelers were also in the middle of another messy situation with Roethlisberger, who was accused last March of the sexual assault of a 20-year-old college student, but a prosecutor in Georgia declined to bring charges.

"Nobody would think you'd trade Santonio for just a fifth-round pick, but nobody really knows what's going on with all the other factors," Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace said. "A player of his caliber and you see him go for that? You know there's a red flag. It's like, 'Something's wrong here.' You can't just let a guy like that go for a fifth-round pick. I guess everyone knew there was more to it."

After coming to the Jets, a flight attendant claimed Holmes failed to follow regulations as the plane he was aboard landed in Pittsburgh. He also was forced to sit out the first four games of this season for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

Tannenbaum acknowledged that the Jets were taking a risk, but insisted it would be worth it.

"I had talked to Hines Ward prior to that happening," Holmes said. "These type of things happen to big-time players. All you can do is just keep replenishing your career. If you get an opportunity to move somewhere else, don't give up on yourself because someone else did. That's exactly what I didn't do."

From all accounts — from Ryan to quarterback Mark Sanchez — Holmes has been an ideal teammate. He also has been a big-time playmaker in the clutch. Holmes played key roles in three straight wins earlier this season with clutch catches late in games. There was also that terrific diving catch in the end zone at New England last week, when Holmes managed to get both knees in bounds to help beat the Patriots.

"Unbelievable," Roethlisberger said of that grab. "I mean, that's what he does. He makes plays."

That's why the Jets were willing to give Holmes a second chance. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer got all he needed to put any concerns at ease when he called the star receiver after the deal was completed.

"Anytime something like that happens to a player, you're always wondering what his reaction is going to be," Schottenheimer said. "But Tone was fired up. He was really looking forward to the opportunity. He believes everything happens for a reason. When I talked to him on the phone, my excitement that I had grew because I knew that we were getting a guy that was excited about coming here and helping us win."

And maybe sticking it to his old team in the process.

"One of the reasons we brought Tone here is for these kind of games," Ryan said. "Big-time players make big-time plays in the brightest spotlight, and here it is right here: the AFC championship. This is Tone Time."


AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner and AP Freelance Writer Chris Adamski in Pittsburgh contributed to this story.