That hard lesson was dispensed by the now 12-1 Pittsburgh Steelers, who captured the AFC North title Sunday afternoon at delirious Heinz Field, with a hard-fought 17-6 win. The Jets fell to 9-4 in their continuing hunt to nail down a Wild Card playoff berth.
The Jets, who had kept three consecutive opponents off the scoreboard in the second half, saw Pittsburgh break open a tight contest with back-to-back fourth quarter touchdown drives capped by running back Jerome Bettis' surprising 10-yard option pass to tight end Jerame Tuman and Bettis' 12-yard run.
"They made a play," Jets head coach Herman Edwards said of Bettis' option pass. "That's what good teams, championship teams do. They make plays in the fourth quarter when the game is tight. They were able to make those plays and we were not."
It was anybody's game for the first three quarters because of a tough Jets' defense – and a maddening series of 12 penalties that killed several Jets drives in the first half. Gang Green hadn't committed more than 10 penalties in any single game this season.
Jets quarterback Chad Pennington was erratic throughout the afternoon. Pennington completed 17 of 31 passes for 189 yards, but was intercepted three times and often overthrew or under-threw receivers. In the first quarter, Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu picked off Pennington's sideline pass to Santana Moss to set up Jeff Reed's 34-yard field goal that gave the Steelers a 3-0 lead.
Linebacker James Farrior intercepted a Pennington pass late in the second quarter, after Gang Green had driven from their 5-yard line to the Steelers 30. A pass interference call on Moss, however, brought the Jets back to the 40 from where Pennington tossed his errant pass.
"It's frustrating," Pennington said. "I can only talk about myself and my performance. It wasn't good enough. We're only going to go as far as I can take [the team]."
The Jets' defense did a decent job against the Steelers powerful running game – limiting the hosts to only 120 net yards, and keeping Pittsburgh rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger off balance for much of the afternoon. Roethlisberger managed only 9-of-19 completions for 144 yards.
Defensive end Bryan Thomas, playing for the injured John Abraham, had an auspicious outing, recording eight tackles and applying pressure on Roethlisberger along with fellow DE Shaun Ellis and defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson. Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma and safety Erik Coleman also had eight tackles, while cornerback Donnie Abraham and safety Reggie Tongue each snared an interception.
But those first-half penalties were killers. The most damaging was a holding call on tight end Anthony Becht that wiped out LaMont Jordan's 30-yard gallop to the Steelers' 19-yard line in the second quarter with Pittsburgh holding a 3-0 lead. After Becht's miscue, the Jets put themselves out of field goal range with a false start and delay of game penalties.
Two costly defensive glitches by cornerback/nickel back Terrell Buckley, produced big plays on the Steelers' fourth-quarter TD drives.
Breaking a 3-3 deadlock, the Steelers got what proved to be the game-winning touchdown on a drive that began late in the third quarter. Pittsburgh escaped starting the drive in the shadow of its goal posts when the left foot of Jets special teams ace Darrell McClover touched the goal line as he downed Toby Gowin's punt at the 1-yard line. With the touchback, Pittsburgh started the drive with some breathing room at the 20.
On first down, Roethlisberger threw a pass toward the right sideline to wide receiver Hines Ward. Going for the interception, Buckley jumped the route – but his aggressiveness backfired. Ward caught the ball and raced 26 yards to the Steelers' 46. Roethlisberger then hit Duce Staley for 21 yards on a middle screen. Shaken up following the hit, Staley left the game and was replaced by Bettis.
As the fourth quarter began, Bettis ran four times for 22 yards, bringing the ball to the Jets' 10-yard line. On third down, he took a handoff, rolled right and lofted a TD strike to an all-alone Tuman in the end zone. Reed's PAT gave the Steelers a 10-3 lead.
On their ensuing drive, the Jets marched to a first down at the Steelers' 23-yard line. But an incomplete pass, four-yard loss by Curtis Martin and short pass to Becht forced Gang Green to settle for Doug Brien's second field goal, from 41 yards, to close the gap to 10-6 with 6:11 to play.
Roethlisberger then engineered a six-play, 69 yard drive, highlighted by his 46-yard pass to wide receiver Lee Mays, who faked Buckley out of position with a slant-and-go down the right sideline to the Jets' 16. Two plays later Bettis powered the ball in from 12 yards. With 3:00 left to play, the Steelers were up, 17-6.
"We knew [Buckley] was jumping a lot," Roethlisberger said. "It seemed like every time we called a play that hopefully he would jump on, he wasn't in the game.
"We did finally get him on the last play where Lee [Mays] made a great play, a great catch and run," Roethlisberger continued. "It was one of those things where [Buckley] was an aggressive player, and we knew that coming in. Lee sold the slant great. I think [the Jets] watched a lot of film and saw us running some slants."
Trailing 3-0 at the half, the Jets overcame horrid field position on their first drive of the third quarter after a Chris Gardocki punt pinned them at the 4-yard line and Martin lost three yards on a first down run. Pennington got Gang Green out of trouble with a 4-yard sideline strike to Moss, and then hit Justin McCareins with a clutch 18-yard pass. Two plays later, McCareins beat cornerback Willie Williams with a 43-yard reception to the Steelers' 29-yard line.
The drive stalled, however, and Gang Green had to settle for Brien's 43-yard field goal that tied the game, 3-3.
Martin, who ran for 72 of the Jets' 107 rushing yards, moved past Bettis into fifth place on the NFL's all-time career rushing list with 13,046. He now has 1,377 yards on the season.
Although the Jets proved to be a worthy opponent for the Steelers, they found no moral victory in the loss.
"Getting close is not good enough," Pennington said. "Every team comes close and a lot of teams have come close to beating the Steelers. To their credit, they did a great job of making sure that [their opponents] only came close, that they didn't turn the tables and win the game."
Jets Frustrate Themselves in 17-6 Loss to Steelers
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