So, the Jets predictably lost in miserable fashion Sunday.
That’s their second loss in the AFC title game in as many years, for those of you keeping score at home.
Frankly, I wasn’t terribly surprised. That’s the crummy thing about trying to be an objective sportswriter; you’re honest with yourself when your team is playing a bit over its head. Call me crazy, but it was going to be a tall order for the Jets to beat the Colts, Patriots and Steelers on the road in successive weeks.
Anyway, I and my girlfriend, Lindsay, met up with some friends at a local bar for the game. Usually, I hate watching my teams in social settings, bars especially. I rarely drink, and I enjoy the opportunity to analyze games more closely in the placid setting of my own home. But cabin fever has been especially gripping this winter, and seeing as I’ve been accused of antisocial behavior on more than one occasion, I figured it was time to get out and stretch the legs a bit.
The first half was sheer misery. The Steelers dominated in a way that crushes one’s soul. They ran the ball down the Jets’ throats. Their defense was smothering. We at the bar lamented the Jets’ horrific play-calling (Brian Schottenheimer’s wildcat fetish just won’t die). We were astonished at the disparity in time of possession. Soul-crushing, I tell you.
A couple minutes before the end of the first half, I stepped outside to get my phone out of my car. For branding purposes, I thought it’d be prudent to put up some self-loathing Jets tweets. I’m supposed to own the rights to that dubious distinction, after all. On the way back in, I spotted a dude watching the game outside on an old flat-screen TV. I have no idea why the TV was outside or why the dude was out there, watching it on a 10-degree night, but he was.
We were shaking our heads in an act of communal disgust. As much as I normally hate to watch games in public, there’s something to be said for being with people who feel the same way you do.
My new friend and I watched as the Jets attempted to drive before the end of the half, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he was a more knowledgeable fan than I would have thought. He gave thoughtful analysis about the woeful first-half showing. He looked the part of your average bar slob — he was morbidly obese and was decked in Jets gear from head to toe — but he didn’t act it.
Then, as the Jets closed in for a Nick Folk field goal, the guy dropped an N-bomb, pertaining to a Jet he didn’t especially like. I chuckled awkwardly, as if to say, “I hear ya, bro,” but I cringed and looked over my shoulder. No one was around, thankfully. Folk nailed the field-goal try, and I went back inside the bar.
For whatever reason, while I was chatting it up with folks in the crowded but crestfallen bar, I thought about pre-2K4 Bill Simmons. This sort of misery would have been his birthright before the Red Sox became sports royalty. He would have been the annoying, know-it-all naysayer at the bar, telling everyone to forget hopes of a comeback.
“I’ve seen this too many times,” my imaginary Simmons would have said, “they’ll come back enough to get your hopes up, but ultimately, they’ll shit the bed.”
This is the sort of cynicism an -ets (Mets and Jets) fan must battle these days. As far as I’m concerned, neither team has come any closer than arm’s length to a title during my fandom. That, of course, doesn’t include 1986; excuse me if I wasn’t waving a blue-and-orange pennant when I was 4.
But, to the point: We are fully aware of our status as the bastard children of New York sports, but we have to battle the eternal cheese that are the mantras “Ya gotta believe!” and “J-E-T-S …”
So, once the second half began, it was pretty clear that the game had taken on a decidedly different tone. It was going to be a ballgame, and, however steep the odds, the Jets were going to incite optimism. They were going to force us to cheer, to hope.
The ebb and flow of that half was weird. The Jets struck quickly with Mark Sanchez’s long connection to Santonio Holmes. You might put an asterisk next to it since Pittsburgh’s defensive back apparently slipped, freeing Holmes, but let’s call it even for William Gay’s sack/strip/fumble/recovery/TD prior to the end of the first half.
Upon Holmes’ touchdown reception, my buddy Mike got on the bar (on his knees, so as to preserve some semblance of integrity) and led a rousing J-E-T-S chant.
Ben Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh’s offense struggled, but they made a couple crucial plays to extend drives and kill clock. Midway through the fourth, when the Jets were threatening to make it a one-touchdown game with plenty of time left, I knew the season was in the balance.
As far as drives go, it was a labor of love. It took forever, but the Jets kept moving the ball. They were making big plays. I was bargaining with myself — or perhaps the vaunted Football Gods — after every down: “OK, if we can just pick up a first down here … If we can just keep the chains moving …”
The season just about ended, though, when the Jets were inside the Steelers’ 5 and they could barely get a damn play off. Whether it was Sanchez’s headset acting up or sheer ineptitude, the drive ground to a halt right there. Plus, you know, I’ve heard it gets tougher to score once in the “red zone.” Who knew?
But it could not end painlessly; that would be too easy.
When Roethlisberger recovered a botched snap in his own end zone for a safety, there was that glimmer of hope. Was it a deus ex machina, of sorts? Of course, as I tweeted, it changed little; the Jets, down 24-12, were still in need of two scores at that point. Far be it for me to be the wet blanket; no one wants to be that guy on the proverbial Long Island Expressway when that little roller is hit up along first.
Again the Jets pieced together a tidy but clock-draining drive. They apparently rectified the communication issues, and when they finally punched in a touchdown on a short Sanchez-to-Jericho Cotchery pass, the remaining minutes were a precious few. But they were within a touchdown of taking the lead, and I — and my fellow bar goers — were fully on board for a miracle.
One dude even suffered an RBI (random beer injury) at my expense.
To know and feel the rest of this tale is to know what it is to be an -ets fan (sorry, that doesn’t include the Nets). The Jets never got the ball back. Roethlisberger, his shady past, and ESPN’s rapidly approaching image-reclamation initiative became the target of my one-beer-addled vitriol (if you’ve pegged me as a lightweight, I’m guilty as charged; again, I don’t drink often). The house lights went up at the bar, and 80 percent of the 223 or so TVs were turned off.
Many chose to stay and drown their sorrows at the bar. As for me and Lindsay, we hadn’t eaten dinner, so the diner beckoned. There, my wounds were so deep that even the usually all-healing Belgian waffle couldn’t ease my troubles.
When the bill came, I realized I’d left my tab open back at the bar. I explained the situation to the diner managers, who were understanding.
Back at the bar, a few stragglers — a couple of my buddies among them — remained. I closed out the tab, and as I shook hands with my friends, bidding adieu and consolation on tough defeat, we settled on that familiar refrain:
“There’s always next year.”