Jets can't shake Steelers

<P>Victor Green knew it had the ring of a prediction reminiscent of a year ago, made by the other coach who calls Giants Stadium home. But Green didn't flinch. </P>

Victor Green knew it had the ring of a prediction reminiscent of a year ago, made by the other coach who calls Giants Stadium home. But Green didn't flinch.

"Take it how you want,'' said the Jets safety. "We're going to make the playoffs.'' The trouble with Green's guarantee was that while it sounded like "Super'' Jim Fassel of a year ago, it came after the Jets put together an effort Sunday that was redolent of ballgames they have played recently.

 Their 18-7 loss to Pittsburgh at Heinz Field had elements of their 17-16 loss the week before to the Patriots: shortcomings in all three phases, a smorgasbord of missed opportunities, both ending with a whimper of an off-line pass from Vinny Testaverde to tight end Anthony Becht. Again they fell to the Steelers -- they've lost 14 of 15 games in the rivalry and are 0-for-5 in the City of Iron. And again they lost in December, a trend from Gang Green's yesteryear that these Jets hate hearing about yet can't seem to distance themselves from.

And so it has come down to this: The 7-5 Jets must mount a three-game winning streak, beginning with Cincinnati at home, continuing at Indianapolis in prime time, and extending to Buffalo back in the Meadowlands. If not, all those goals of playoffs and Super Bowls could come down to a familiar sad refrain in the regular-season finale at Oh-for-Oakland.

The Jets insisted they were not going to repeat the sins of the past. "It's not time to push the panic button, it's not time to press,'' Testaverde said with a sigh. "The psyche and confidence is still there. I have no doubt this team believes we can get in the playoffs.''

 "This ain't the end,'' said defensive end Shaun Ellis. "We're making a push for it.'' Push came to shove Sunday. And the results didn't match the Jets' anticipation of coming to Heinz and slugging it out with the Steelers, No. 1 in the NFL in rushing offense and in total, passing, and scoring defense, but with their injured star back, Jerome "Bus'' Bettis, on the blocks.

For the first half, at least, the Jets gave the appearance that they would give it a go. They weathered the suddenly airworthy offense triggered by quarterback Kordell Stewart for a while. And when they dusted off the old Curtis Martin-to-Wayne Chrebet 18-yard option TD pass from last year's Tampa Bay game, they had cut the Steelers' lead to 9-7 with 4:37 to play in the first half. And it seemed as if they caused "Blitzburgh'' to retreat just a bit.

"We did a good job of picking it up,'' said guard Randy Thomas. "When you blitz, you take a chance, but we've got to make plays when we pick it up.'' But the Jets' shortcomings began to mount on offense, defense, and special teams. The West Coast "O'' managed 220 yards, its least in a win this season, as Testaverde, missing injured rookie Santana Moss from the equation, missed several key hookups with Laveranues Coles and Chrebet.

"It starts with me, it starts with the quarterback,'' said Testaverde, who was 15-for-26 but picked up just two conversions on the eight times he dropped back on third down. "I have to do things we're talking about, and hopefully everybody will follow my lead.'' Everyone is painfully aware of the unit's failure to roll sevens -- from the last three drives of their Game 5 comeback win over Miami, Testaverde has led the offense to eight touchdowns in his last 79 possessions, a poor 10.1 percent TD rate. "I just think we have to make plays,'' said Martin, who came into the game as the NFL's leading rusher by 10 yards over the idle Bus but could add only 58 yards on 11 carries (plus 29 yards on four catches and 18 on his annual TD pass).

 "It's not a matter of us absorbing everything [in coordinator Paul Hackett's offense]. We've been soaking in it. We've been marinated in it. It's not the playcalling. We've just got to make plays.''

The defense, meanwhile, didn't follow its own lead from its recent renaissance, as the Steelers converted 11 of 18 third downs. That was a 61.1 percent success rate that was the worst by the Jets' third-down "D'' since the double whammy of that Dolphins win followed by their loss to St. Louis. "We didn't get enough pressure in Stewart's face,'' nose tackle Steve Martin suggested as a reason for Pittsburgh's high conversion rate. "If we would've done that, we probably would've cut down on that.''

Then came the special teams. The kickoff-return group gave away another short kick, not an onsides kick this time but a Kris Brown squib that hit James Darling in the ankles. Fortunately for the Jets, Brown could not finish what he started when he missed the second of his three placements, a 40-yard field goal, to end the first half. But Tom Tupa and the punt coverage team, already saddled with the 31st-ranked net-return average against them, gave up three straight punts with net yardages of 20, 27, and 10 yards.

The last punt, returned by short safety Bobby Shaw 23 yards to the Steelers 46, set up the hosts' final field goal and an 18-7 lead with 2:17 to play. Needing two scores, the Jets shunned a field goal on fourth-and-5 at the Pittsburgh 12 with 52 seconds left for another Testaverde pass to Becht. Unlike New England, this one wasn't intercepted. Like the Patriots game, Becht couldn't catch the throw and the Jets' last hopes died.

 "I just felt at that point, we needed to score a touchdown,'' said Edwards of bypassing a field-goal-first strategy. "We hadn't been down close the whole day, so I wanted to try to score a touchdown.''

So the Jets' game ended not with a bang but with a whimper. And everyone in the spanking new, clean Heinz Field visitors' locker room knew there was no room left for any more untidy games like the Patriots and Steelers. "We know it's not a done deal,'' said Martin. "We made it harder on ourselves. It puts more pressure on us.''

"They're disappointed, and a lot will be written on it,'' Edwards said. "They know that, I already told them that. So there's nothing we can do about that, because until we win a game, you should write about it.'' And it's up to the Jets to show that they are not to be written off in December. Again.


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