- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Rex Ryan likes to joke about how he and Mark Sanchez have this running gag -- how they joined the New York Jets together and it's up to them to make sure they don't get each other fired.
But by the time the Jets dragged themselves to one last day of work Monday, less than 24 hours after their second AFC title game loss in two years, the Jets' coach and his quarterback had emerged as the best reasons to believe the Green and White won't get caught up in one of sports' most dangerous traps: the temptation to believe that whatever success they had will smoothly roll into next season.
"Next year, we start all over," Sanchez said.
Which is not completely correct.
Next season brings no guarantees, it's true. But even with all the missteps and occasional excesses Ryan and his Jets team made this season -- and Ryan agreed Monday that one of them was indeed not running the ball four straight times once the Jets stormed all the way to the Steelers' 2-yard line in the second half, only to be stopped without any points -- Ryan still has succeeded in lifting the Jets into the sort of culture change the franchise desperately needed before he arrived.
Ryan relentlessly talks a good game. But most of the time, he coaches an even better one.
And Sanchez? By the time the Jets gave the ball back to the Steelers with three minutes left Sunday, trailing then by just five after falling behind 24-3 at halftime, there wasn't a guy on the Jets' offense who didn't think that if the defense could just get them the ball one last time, Sanchez could take them into the end zone.
"People forget he's still one of the youngest players in the league," Ryan said.
When asked Monday what he'll remember most about the Jets' remarkable, giant-killing playoff run -- a roll that took them past Peyton Manning and the Colts, past Tom Brady and his 14-2 Patriots, and on to Sunday's frantic rush to overtake Pittsburgh and Ben Roethlisberger -- Sanchez sounded like a guy who genuinely felt what everyone else has been saying: He continues to come of age, quickly, even though he plays the toughest position in sports.
Sanchez knows he didn't get the Jets to 13 wins this season without a lot of help. But what Sanchez already is, at this early juncture of his career, is good enough to make the Jets justifiably believe that even in a pass-first league in which game manager quarterbacks such as Jake Delhomme and Trent Dilfer don't win Super Bowls anymore, the Jets have a chance to be in the running again next season. Maybe every season.
"I don't think I've been more focused, maybe in my life; I don't think I've been more prepared," Sanchez said. "I just felt good about the plan, I was seeing things before they happened, the game started to slow down. ... Just being in the meeting rooms [all last week], every time we would get in the team meeting rooms and I'd see Rex talk, it was just like, 'This is it. We're going. This is our year. It's going to happen.'"
Shaking his head now, Sanchez added, "It's just too bad.
"We're so close. ... We're so close."
Both Ryan and Sanchez still have work to do. But they know it.
Sanchez still isn't at the point where he's a threat to drop a 350-yard passing game on any team any week the way other young quarterbacks such as Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan are more apt to do. But what we might come to find is Sanchez has more Roethlisberger in him instead -- that is, the ability to save his best work for the most crucial points of a game. And who around here wouldn't take some more of that, given that Roethlisberger is working on his third Super Bowl ring in six seasons, two more than a stat machine like Manning?
For all his gotta-be-me talk, Ryan would be smart to re-evaulate whether all of the Jets' freewheeling antics really are necessary or even advisable.
Ryan's enthusiasm and optimism are two of the best, most contagious traits he has. Seeing him standing up there again Monday, looking dog-tired and disappointed about Sunday's defeat, and yet still bragging on his team, was classic Ryan.
He didn't back down from his preseason promise that the Jets were Super Bowl-bound, saying, "Maybe when I said that 'soon to be champs,' I just didn't know when that was. But I still believe it. In my heart, I believe that we'll be champs." He also said the Jets might have already found a way to win their division by now -- and thus not have had to make both of their playoff runs the past two seasons entirely on the road -- if only the rest of the league was as good at beating New England as the Jets have been.
"Quite honestly, we've done a pretty good job of it," Ryan said.
The man has a way of making you believe a Grade 12 hurricane is just a passing rain shower. His confidence is so relentless and remarkable, even players on other teams feel the pull.
The problem is, opposing teams sometimes seem driven by the Jets' talking, too. It's just hard to know when or how that will be true. While the Steelers sprang into Sunday's game bent on silencing the Jets and mocking them when the game was over, the Jets admitted their flat start might have been related to the emotional energy they spilled beating New England in the divisional playoffs a week earlier, extracting revenge for the 45-3 beatdown the Pats put on them in the game that decided the AFC East title in December.
The Jets might have been the only team in this season's playoffs that acted, consciously or not, as if it had to play two Super Bowls to win the title -- that rematch against the Pats, and then the real title game they would have played in two weeks if they had somehow gotten by the Steelers.
It didn't happen. But Ryan and Sanchez are right. As long as they're here, that's not to say it won't.
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