It would be too easy to lay all the blame on kicker Doug Brien for the Jets' heartbreaking 20-17 overtime loss to the now 16-1 Pittsburgh Steelers in Saturday's divisional playoff game at Heinz Field. Brien, who booted the game winner in last week's Wild Card playoff OT victory at San Diego, missed two potential game winning field goals late in the fourth quarter. His 47-yard attempt with 2:03 remaining hit the crossbar, and he was wide left on a 43-yarder as time expired.
Brien and the Jets' offense then watched helplessly as Pittsburgh took advantage of a tiring defense by driving down the field for Jeff Reed's game-winning 33-yard field goal with 3:56 left in the extra quarter. Gang Green's defensive fatigue was abetted by the offense, which converted only three-of-12 third downs the entire game. In the third quarter, the Jets had the ball for only 3:08.
The Jets broke an NFL record by becoming the first team to play three consecutive overtime games. The extra time and effort they invested on Saturday only compounded the hurt.
"There are no words. There's nothing to be said," noted Jets quarterback Chad Pennington, who completed 21 of 33 passes for 165 yards. "Everyone across the world saw the effort that was out there today, saw that we had our chances to win. That's the game of football – sometimes it just doesn't go your way. We had a great season. Not a lot of people thought we'd be in this position after a six and 10 season [in 2003]. We don't have anything to hang our heads about. But it definitely is a tough one to take."
Offensive left tackle Jason Fabini added: "Coming here to Pittsburgh and having a chance to win the game twice and we just didn't get it done. I think you've got to give [our] defense credit; they played a heckuva game. But the offense didn't score enough points.
"I don't know," Fabini continued, "we move the ball well until we get into the red zone. We just can't move it there. I don't know. It's disappointing. It's hard to get this far into the playoffs and going to Pittsburgh and really having them on the ropes and we came up short."
The Jets, whose season ends at 11-7, fell behind 10-0 in the first quarter on Reed's 45-yard field goal and Jerome Bettis' 3-yard TD run. Bettis' score was set up by safety Troy Polamalu's interception and return of a Pennington pass to the Jets' 26-yard line.
Gang Green got on the scoreboard with Brien's 42-yard field goal in the second quarter. Unfortunately, it was a drive emblematic of the team's season-long difficulties inside an opponent's 20-yard line. With a first down at the Pittsburgh 17, Pennington was sacked twice and RB Curtis Martin dumped for a one-yard loss forcing the Jets to settle for three points.
The Jets tied the game, 10-10, on Santana Moss' 75-yard punt return with 3:00 left in the second quarter. Pittsburgh had allowed only one punt return longer than 10 yards in its past 11 games.
Gang Green took a 17-10 lead late in the third quarter when safety Reggie Tongue intercepted Ben Roethlisberger's poorly thrown pass to Plexico Burris and returned it 84 yards for a touchdown.
The Steelers had a chance to answer on their ensuing drive, pounding the ball with Bettis and Duce Staley, who made his first appearance of the game in the second half. But on a first down at the Jets' 22, defensive end Shaun Ellis stripped the ball from Bettis with safety Erik Coleman recovering. It was Bettis' first fumble in 353 touches.
This was potentially crunch time for Gang Green, whose play kept the usually vociferous Steelers partisans at bay for much of the game. The Jets, however, could do nothing with the possession. They meekly went three-and-out, with Moss unable to handle Pennington's bullet pass on a third down and two.
So much for momentum. Pittsburgh tied the game on its next drive, capped by Roethlisberger's 4-yard shovel pass to Hines Ward.
Brien missed his 47-yard attempt on the next Jets drive but Pittsburgh promptly turned the ball over, with cornerback David Barrett picking off a pass and returning it to the Steelers' 37-yard line.
Martin's 3-yard run and nine-yard gain on a screen pass gave the Jets a first down at the Pittsburgh 25. The Gang Green brain trust then played ultraconservative football from there, leading to Brien's appearance and another off-target field goal.
"We were right there at the end to win the game and we didn't make it," noted Ellis, who left the field for a few plays after his forced fumble to get an IV for fatigue and dehydration. "[Pittsburgh is] a good team. They played hard, we played hard."
"You know, it's tough, because in the NFL teams don't get a chance to stay together. You feel bad for veterans – guys who put in a lot of work, put a lot into this game," Pennington said, alluding to the fact that it's likely several of his teammates will be playing elsewhere next season due to free agency.
"Nine and 10-year guys… that deserve a chance to go to the Super Bowl and you just feel bad for guys like that because you never know what the future's gonna hold as far as your team's concerned."
Ellis added: "We took a step forward. We'll be back next year."