FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — The New York Jets tried to ignore all the criticism that was building outside their locker room.

They were being called underachievers and phonies by some fans and media, a team that isn’t nearly as good as its coach insists it is. After an embarrassing 45-3 loss at New England was followed by a frustrating 10-6 defeat to Miami, the players couldn’t help but privately wonder if everyone was right.

“For whatever reason, I think we were kind of down on ourselves after losing those two games,” linebacker Calvin Pace said Monday. “We just had to go back to the drawing board a little bit, look at ourselves in the mirror and say that we need to get back on a roll.”

Most everyone counted the Jets (10-4) out before they got on their flight to Pittsburgh. But then Rex Ryan stood before his guys Saturday night and got emotional, as he usually does. He passionately told them they are better than they’ve been playing and it was time to prove it.

They responded with a 22-17 victory that gave the franchise its first win at Pittsburgh, and boosted the team’s confidence and playoff hopes.

“Rex is like a father, and sometimes your Dad believes in you, sometimes more than the kid does,” fullback Tony Richardson said. “That was his message: ‘You know what, guys? I’ve been saying all along that we have a football team, but when are we going to realize it?’ meaning the players.”

The sight of Ryan begging for more from his team left a powerful impression, to the point there was little talking before the game. There was only focus.

“You’ve got a guy standing in front of you pouring his heart out and seeing the disappointment that he has in us, just because he believes so much in us,” Pace said. “He sticks his neck out on the line. He says a lot of things that ruffles people’s feathers, but he says it and he truly believes in us.”

Ryan downplayed his speech, saying it was probably “overblown.”

“I’m just an average person that speaks from the heart,” he said. “It’s really more about our players and how they played.”

Whatever is being said by outsiders doesn’t matter to Ryan, who pumps up his team no matter the consequences or public perception.

“He has our back,” defensive end Shaun Ellis said. “And, when we don’t have his back, it hurts him.”

That’s what finally clicked in for a lot of the players Saturday night, and it might have saved the Jets’ season.

“The craziest thing is it shouldn’t ever have to get to that,” Pace said. “We’ve done well, but we haven’t done what we can do and we’ve let some games slip by with our mistakes. We just needed to squash all of that.”

Brad Smith set the tone by returning the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. A struggling Mark Sanchez played a turnover-free game, providing a key highlight when he fooled Pittsburgh’s defense — as well as television cameras — on a 7-yard bootleg touchdown run on fourth-and-1. It was the Jets’ first offensive TD since Thanksgiving.

Even embattled offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer was praised by the players for his game plan.

Then, there was the often-criticized defense holding on — just barely — against Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense in the end.

“Until yesterday,” Richardson said, “we really hadn’t played a complete game.”

The Jets now control their playoff destiny and potentially could clinch a spot in the postseason, their second straight under Ryan, with a win at Chicago next Sunday.

“It’s going to basically be us against the world again,” Pace said.

And, that’s how the Jets seem to like it. Last year, when it appeared their playoff chances were over, they rallied to win their final two games — with some help from Indianapolis and Cincinnati, of course, who had little to play for. But, it was a springboard that launched New York all the way to the AFC championship game.

The win over the Steelers could serve as a similar jump-off point.

“If you can win at a place like Pittsburgh, you can win anywhere,” Pace said. “We just got that bad taste out of our mouths after those two losses and it’s something to build on.”

The win came after the Jets were under public scrutiny again last week, when the team suspended strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi indefinitely for tripping a Miami player and ordering a wall of players to stand on the sideline. Many wondered if Ryan was running too loose a ship, a team of undisciplined players and coaches.

They all got down to business Sunday, and showed they refuse to give in to the negative chatter.

“I just think we played like Jets,” Ryan said. “We played like the team I think we are. That was a team that’s physical, a team that’s prideful, a team that obviously has a lot of talent, and a team that expects to go out and win. That’s exactly how we played.”

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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