Published November 20, 2014
Maybe Rex Ryan should have made this one personal, too. Too much respect can sometimes be a dangerous thing.
The New York Jets didn't call anybody out all week in an unusually subdued prelude to the AFC championship game. By the time Ryan called the world out afterward, his players were already packing up for the trip home.
A coincidence, perhaps. But a team that thrived on turmoil and trash talk all season didn't seem to know how to act against the one opponent who got their respect.
"People want to criticize us, then you go ahead," Ryan said. "But you really got no right."
Oh, really? No right to expect one of the league's most vaunted defenses to actually tackle someone? No right to expect that with the Jets' first berth in the Super Bowl in 42 years on the line the team might show up ready to play?
Forget the second-half comeback that made this one interesting in the end. The Pittsburgh Steelers are heading to their third Super Bowl in six years because the Jets simply weren't ready to play when they needed it the most.
When the Steelers made a final first down to seal their 24-19 win Sunday, all Ryan could do was slam down his headset and mouth a word mothers around the country probably wished they hadn't let their sons stay up late to see. The frustration of a great playoff run falling just short had to be amplified by Ryan's knowledge that if his team had played half as well in the first half as it did in the second, the Jets would be heading for Dallas instead of the Steelers.
But Super Bowl teams don't get outrushed 135-1 in one half of football. Super Bowl teams don't fall behind 24-0 before suddenly remembering what brought them to the AFC championship game to begin with.
The only trash talking by then came from Jets fans as they watched the season slip away.
"We played a good half, we just never played a good game," Ryan said. "Obviously, there's a huge amount of disappointment for us."
That's especially true for Ryan, who has now been on the losing side in the last three AFC title games, the last two of them as head coach of the Jets. All year long he's talked about how good his team is and how he expected them to be in the Super Bowl and, after winning on the road against both Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, he was picking up a lot of believers along the way.
But against a team that can show off Super Bowl rings instead of just talk about them, it all came crashing down. The Jets made mistake after mistake, beginning with Ryan's decision to defer after winning the coin flip, a move that backfired when Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers on a 15-play drive that chewed up more than nine minutes on the clock.
It was 27 minutes in real time from the opening kickoff until Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez touched the ball. He stood shivering on the sidelines, then was even colder once he got on the field.
Give Sanchez credit for turning things around in the second half, but the Jets had dug themselves such a hold that Joe Namath in his prime wouldn't have been able to bring them back all the way.
"It just wasn't there in the first half," Sanchez said. "You can't play 30 minutes in a game of this magnitude."
The team that became so much fun to root for after HBO's "Hard Knocks" introduced Ryan and his band of pranksters to the country seemed out of character all week. Ryan himself made no grand proclamations, and the players kept talking about how much they respected the Steelers when they could have been making fun of Troy Polamalu's hair or talking about Roethlisberger's four-game suspension for his encounter with a college student in a Georgia bar.
Maybe they were worn out after taking aim at Manning, then making it personal against the Patriots and Bill Belichick. Maybe it's asking too much of any team to win against perhaps the best three quarterbacks in the league in their home stadiums.
"There's probably no tougher three games than any team in the league would have to face," Ryan said.
But the Jets would have won this one had they had any kind of a spark in the first half. They dominated the second half and, if not for a goal line stand by the Steelers, might have had a chance to pull this one out late or in overtime.
Whatever Ryan said in the locker room at halftime was surely his best talk of the week. The Jets responded to their leader, as they seem to do every time he opens his mouth.
Unfortunately, his talk came one miserable half too late.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org