Mark Sanchez was standing in the pocket, scanning Heinz Field for an available target, his team trailing the Pittsburgh Steelers by 17 points late in the second quarter of the American Football Conference Championship Game.
Sanchez had his back was turned to Ike Taylor. He never saw what was coming. A fanbase that has long feasted on failure knew what was about to happen.
Taylor drove his 195 pounds into Sanchez's back. The ball exploded out of Sanchez's hand as Taylor drove the quarterback into the turf. An obscure cornerback named William Gay picked up the loose football and sprinted 19 yards into the end zone.
Nearly two hours later, the season officially ended as an undrafted rookie wide receiver Antonio Brown grabbed a Ben Roethlisberger pass for 14 yards and a first down. Three Roethlisberger kneel downs later, the Jets were AFC Championship Game losers for the fourth time in franchise history, this a 24-19 heartbreaker. The Jets finished the season with a 13-6 record. Pittsburgh will meet Green Bay at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on February 6 for Super Bowl XLV. The Packers topped the Bears, 21-14, in the NFC Championship Game.
What will make this loss all the more galling for the franchise and its fans is that the Jets cannot blame this loss on a muddy field or one of the NFL's great teams or an all-time performance by an all-time quarterback. This loss, simply, was on a team that could not put together a 60-minute effort—a season long malady that cost them in the penultimate game.
The Jets trailed 24-3 at halftime. That had everything to do with a defense that could not slow the Steelers offense. Pittsburgh had held the ball 20:59 and had run 39 plays. Rashad Mendenhall (121 yards) opened the scoring with a one-yard touchdown run. The score culminated a 15-play, 66 yard drive that took 9:02 off the clock.
Shaun Suisham pushed the advantage to 10-0 with a 20-yard field goal midway through the second quarter. Roethlisberger's two-yard touchdown run at the two minute warning increased the lead to 17-0. Roethlisberger completed 10-of-19 passes for 133 yards. He also rushed 11 times for 21 yards. Roethlisberger did throw interceptions to Bryan Thomas and Brodney Pool. Gay scored the game-deciding touchdown exactly 47 seconds after Roethlisberger's scoring run.
Nick Folk cut the deficit to 24-3 with a 42-yard field goal with nine seconds left in the first half.
The Jets have studiously avoided for two seasons giving the offensive reins to Sanchez. The organization has opted to bring the quarterback along slowly. Down by 21 and with two quarters remaining, the task of asked of Sanchez was to get the team back in the game.
That he did.
Sanchez completed 20-of-33 passes for 233 yards and two touchdowns. He hit Santonio Holmes for a 45-yard touchdown in the third quarter and Jerricho Cotchery for a four-yard score with 3:06 left. The Cotchery touchdown was the game's final score.
However what will linger was not scoring a touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the Pittsburgh two-yard line after a 17-play, 80-yard drive. Instead, the Jets turned the ball over on downs. Roethlisberger fumbled the snap in the end zone and fell on the ball for a safety.
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