PITTSBURGH – This was not how the season was supposed to end for the New York Jets.
Not in Rex Ryan's mind, at least.
But there was the brash coach, red-eyed and disappointed, trying to make sense of a 24-19 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game Sunday night.
"We were one game away again," Ryan said. "It cuts your heart out."
Especially when you've told everyone who'd listen that your team was destined for greatness.
Ryan has led the Jets to consecutive AFC title games in his two seasons as coach, and this made-for-TV journey was marked by a reality-show appearance, controversies, scandals, big talking and some terrific plays.
It ended a win shy of the franchise's first Super Bowl trip since 1969, and with Ryan firing one final shot at all of his team's critics. And there are plenty of them.
"Our goal for next year, I've got news for you, it won't change," Ryan said. "It will never change. We're going to chase that Super Bowl. We're going to chase it until we get it. Then, we'll chase it after that again.
"But that's it. If you want to criticize us, then go ahead, but you have no right."
That was the type of fiery talk that was mostly missing in the week leading up to the game. The Jets were uncharacteristically quiet after a loud run through the postseason, and not much changed once the game started.
By the time they made some noise, it was simply too late.
Ryan's big-mouthed bunch was shut down and shut up in the first half, and the Jets' defense was dominated by Ben Roethlisberger, Rashard Mendenhall and the Super Bowl-bound Steelers.
"It's the toughest loss I've ever been a part of," linebacker Jason Taylor said.
New York was silenced until a second-half comeback attempt fell short. And it was because of a stunningly slow start that lacked the intensity of the Jets' first two playoff victories.
And the reason was inexplicable.
"We just came out flat," cornerback Darrelle Revis said.
Added defensive end Shaun Ellis: "They came out and out-tempoed us."
Ryan's aggressive defense was leaky from the beginning, allowing Pittsburgh gain after big gain as the Steelers jumped out to a 24-0 lead that the Jets couldn't recover from.
"They made plays when they had to," Ryan said, "and that's why they're moving on."
That's not the only reason. New York's run defense allowed 166 yards rushing, including 121 by Rashard Mendenhall, after giving up only 91 yards a game.
"It came down the most basic lesson in football, man: tackling," defensive tackle Sione Pouha said.
Added Ryan: "The tackling was not up to our standards to any stretch of the imagination."
Pittsburgh held the ball for more than 21 minutes, outgained New York 231-50 and outrushed the Jets 135-1 in the opening half. New York's defense had a solid second half, keeping the Steelers off the scoreboard. But the Jets needed to make one more stand to give themselves a chance at a late comeback.
With the Steelers facing third-and-6 with 2 minutes left, the Jets got pressure on Roethlisberger. But the big quarterback rolled out and got a pass off to Antonio Brown, who went down and grabbed the toss for a first down, allowing the Steelers to run out the clock.
"Ben is Ben," said Pouha, who smacked into Roethlisberger as he threw. "I was just hoping it would deter the throw, but that's second nature to him."
Ryan then slammed down his headset, knowing his team's season again ended one win short of where he told everyone it would.
"There's no tomorrow," Pouha said, almost whispering. "We're going home."
That wasn't in the script.
Ryan said all season he thought his team was going to win the Super Bowl, even boldly scribbling "Soon To Be Champs" on an ESPN bus during training camp. On Friday, he reiterated that he wanted to see green and white confetti fall, wanted the celebratory hats and T-shirts and to raise the trophy as AFC champions.
It wasn't to be. Again.
"Think about the worst thing that can happen to you," center Nick Mangold said. "That's the feeling."
Ryan called the Jets' first-round playoff game against Indianapolis "personal" against Peyton Manning, and the defense bottled up the Colts' Pro Bowl quarterback.
The next week, Ryan said it was between him and the Patriots' Bill Belichick, declaring he needed to outcoach his counterpart. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie fired things up by calling Tom Brady an expletive, and the trash talk escalated from there.
The Jets backed up all the big talk by stunning the Patriots 28-21. But things took a silent turn last week when Ryan heaped praise on Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, using words such as "respect" and "like," and his players followed suit.
Turns out, the Jets might have needed to keep that mean streak going.
"I would change the outcome of this game and that's the only thing I would change," Ryan said. "We don't need to apologize to anybody. We'll be back, you'll see."
But how many of the players who walked off the field will be back?
Jason Taylor was teary-eyed after the game, sounding as though the end was near for him. It's uncertain if LaDainian Tomlinson will be back. And the Jets will have plenty of other decisions to make on players such as Cromartie, Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, Brad Smith and Shaun Ellis.
"This team as you see it tonight will never be together again," Taylor said. "Whether Jason Taylor's back or anybody else is back, it will not be the same football team again. It just can't be. It's sad in its own right."