Jets

Playoffs Within Reach As Jets Topple Steelers, 22-17

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Mark Sanchez

Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, left, escapes from the Steelers’ LaMarr Woodley on Dec. 19, 2010, in Pittsburgh. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

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Updated: 12/20/10 6:23 a.m.

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Turns out Jets coach Rex Ryan doesn’t save all of his best material for HBO’s cameras or his weekly, quote-filled news conferences.

Sometimes he speaks from the heart, and it’s obvious his Jets players listen.

Ryan’s team meeting speech the night before provided considerable motivation for New York’s near-desperation 22-17 victory in Pittsburgh on Sunday, one that put the Jets on the verge of clinching a playoff berth that appeared to be slipping away.

The Steelers (10-4) secured one of the AFC’s six playoff spots despite losing, a year after missing out on the postseason, but this wasn’t the way they wanted to do it.

For the Jets, this was exactly what they wanted to do — and where they wanted to do it, in a city where they had never won before.

Ryan’s message: Forget about the 45-3 loss to New England, the 10-6 loss to Miami and the dozens of mistakes that occurred in them. Get back to being the team that started 9-2. Get back to being the team that reached the AFC championship game last season after nearly missing the playoffs.

Get back to being the Jets.

“He just challenged us to come up and play the way we know how — to maximize our potential, and I think we did that,” quarterback Mark Sanchez said.

Ryan’s speech came a few days after Sanchez delivered his own message: I’m done being the reason why we’re losing games. He kept his promise, too, playing a turnover-free game after throwing four interceptions and fumbling five times in the previous two weeks.

“It’s been a tough couple of weeks, but when he stood up in that huddle and he said, ‘I’m going to play better. I’m not going to continue to turn the ball over’ … you had to believe the guy,” running back LaDainian Tomlinson said.

Looks like the Jets (10-4) got the message, from coach and quarterback alike.

They got off to the best possible start, Brad Smith’s 97-yard return of the opening kickoff. Sanchez also executed a perfect bootleg for a 7-yard touchdown run that tied it at 17, New York’s first TD on offense in three games.

“We practiced it against our defense and it caught them off guard,” Sanchez said. “It was a great call (by offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer) at the right time.”

That drive was aided by — uh, oh, the Steelers again on a dangerous hit — a 15-yard penalty on safety Ryan Clark for a helmet hit on Braylon Edwards’ 15-yard catch. Clark’s head struck Edwards in the shoulder, but Clark clearly led with his helmet.

Nick Folk also ignored a slippery field created by lightly falling snow to make both of his field goal attempts, including a 34-yarder with 10:07 remaining that gave New York the lead at 20-17.

Linebacker Jason Taylor then made certain Pittsburgh would have to go for a touchdown on its final drive, rather than a field goal, by tackling running back Mewelde Moore in the end zone for a safety and a 22-17 lead with 2:38 remaining.

“It’s what we talk about with Jason Taylor, he makes plays, and that was another great example of it,” Ryan said.

Pittsburgh had a long field and little time left after the safety, but Ben Roethlisberger nearly pulled it off. He drove the Steelers from their 8 to the Jets 10 in less than 2 minutes, a drive that included his 29-yard completion to Emmanuel Sanders on third-and-24.

But when the Jets flooded the end zone with defenders, rather than blitzing Roethlisberger, he couldn’t find Sanders and tight end Matt Spaeth on the final two plays.

“I told the guys, let’s be great, let’s go down the field and score. We got close, but not close enough,” Roethlisberger said.

Spaeth, filling in for the injured Heath Miller (concussion), earlier made a 9-yard touchdown catch. But he couldn’t come up with the ball on a sideline throw on the final play.

“I had an opportunity to make a play and be a hero, and unfortunately it didn’t happen,” Spaeth said. “I dropped it, it was a good throw. A lot of stuff was going on but I definitely should have made the play.”

Wide receiver Hines Ward called the finish “very disappointing.”

“We called two plays and didn’t convert,” Ward said. “We had the opportunity and we pride ourselves on being there (at the end).”

The Steelers fell to 4-3 at home, with losses there to the Ravens, Patriots and Jets, yet they own the division tiebreaker and will beat out Baltimore (10-4) for the AFC North title if they win their final two. They’re at home against Carolina (2-12) on Thursday before traveling to Cleveland (5-9) on Jan. 2.

“We’ve just got to win two more games, very winnable games, teams we match up well against,” Clark said. “We still can win this division.”

The Steelers could have blamed being without star safety Troy Polamalu (Achilles’ tendon) for the loss, but didn’t. While Sanchez was mostly error-free, he didn’t pile up a lot of yardage — he was 19 of 29 for 170 yards — with no completion longer than 38 yards.

While no Jets running back gained more than Tomlinson’s 49 yards on 11 carries, the Jets ran for 106 yards against the NFL’s best rushing defense — and that might have been where Pittsburgh missed Polamalu the most. Previously, only the Patriots (103 yards) had gained at least 100 against the Steelers.

There was something more to the Jets winning in Pittsburgh. Until Sunday, no Jets team had done so in seven previous visits, one during the playoffs. Only two other NFL teams have longer unbeaten streaks on their home field against one opponent.

“We needed it huge,” Ryan said. “There’s no question.”

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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