- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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PITTSBURGH -- With two minutes to play, Mark Sanchez and his offensive teammates already were plotting. They were talking on the sideline about how they were going to win the game, how it was going to be like Indianapolis and Houston and Cleveland and the other crazy, last-minute victories from 2010.
One last chance, that's all Sanchez wanted. He wanted the ball in his hands, with a chance to go to the Super Bowl, an opportunity to erase 42 years of Jets misery with one drive. Eighty yards in 100 seconds? No problem, they had done it before.
The kid deserved a shot, but he never got it because Rex Ryan's beloved defense couldn't make a stop, failing twice in the span of a minute. The New York Jets lost the heartbreaker of heartbreakers to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 24-19 on Sunday night in the AFC Championship Game at Heinz Field, and Sanchez had to feel like Nolan Carroll -- the Miami player who got tripped by Sal Alosi.
Cut down, helplessly.
"It was too bad because as a competitor, as a quarterback, you just want one more chance," Sanchez said. "That's just how I am. It was hard, seeing them win it like that."
Sanchez rallied his team from a 24-0 deficit, throwing for two touchdowns and 170 yards in the second half. The Jets were poised to make history -- biggest comeback ever in a conference championship -- and you know they would've been able to drive it downfield against the wheezing Pittsburgh defense.
But Sanchez never got another huddle, and the plays they talked about on the sideline never got called. All they could do was watch. That's what made it hurt so much. The Jets will be haunted by what might have been.
"Our confidence would've been through the roof, but you can't live in a world of what-if," left guard Matt Slauson said quietly at his locker.
This loss cut deeply. The Jets felt this was their time. They had a hot defense, a quarterback with moxie and the look of a Super Bowl team. Rex Ryan said it was so, and you had to believe him after the way they beat up Tom Brady last week.
The postgame scene in the locker room was funereal. Guard Brandon Moore, always affable, declined interviews. Ryan, who slammed his headset in disgust when defeat became imminent, looked as if he had been crying. And he was, according to players.
Slauson wanted to puke.
"I can't explain it," he said. "I feel sick right now, just to know how close we were."
Jason Taylor felt like pulling his hair out, if he had any.
"So close you could see it, you could smell it, you could feel it," said Taylor, who may have played the final game in a terrific career.
Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, who came back in the game after a first-half hamstring injury, couldn't get his voice above a whisper.
"We were talking on the sideline, talking about the things we were going to dial up," he said. "We felt pretty good, no matter where the ball was going to be. We felt good about getting it downfield and sealing up the game."
So what happened? With 2:50 to play, Ben Roethlisberger completed a second-and-9 pass to Heath Miller for 14 yards -- the ball narrowly eluding the pleading fingertips of safety Brodney Pool. After two runs, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin defied conventional wisdom on third-and-6 from the Jets' 40.
Instead of running again and milking the clock -- the Jets had no timeouts left -- Tomlin called a pass. The Jets came tantalizingly close to blowing up the play, with nose tackle Sione Pouha getting into Roethlisberger's face as he released the ball on the run. Antonio Brown made a sliding catch for a first down, and that was that.
If it had been incomplete, there would've been a punt, maybe a touchback, and Sanchez would've had the ball at his 20 with about 1:40 to play -- plenty of time to work another miracle. And Tomlin would've been sweating it out because of his curious decision.
"That's the first time our defense didn't get the big stop and give our offense a chance to win the game," Ryan said.
Too bad, because Sanchez played well after a rough start. He was banged around by the Steelers, hurt his left arm on a strip sack, but he came back to hit Santonio Holmes for a 45-yard touchdown pass to make it 24-10. Sanchez called an audible, and hit Cotchery for a 4-yard score to make it 24-19.
Sanchez (20-for-33, 233 yards) played well enough to win his fifth playoff game on the road, which would've been an NFL record. With one more possession, he would've had the chance to achieve icon status in only his second year. Imagine if he had defeated Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Roethlisberger in a three-week span; it would've been an all-time run.
"We have one of the youngest players in the league at quarterback, and eventually this guy is going to be one of the best in the league," Ryan said. "I think it's going to be sooner than later."
It could've been now. It should've been now.
5hEric D. Williams
2dBy Ian O'Connor