Monday December 20th, 2010

PITTSBURGH -- You could tell all was right once again in the Jets world after Sunday's upset win over the Steelers, because some of the bluster was back. Maybe they didn't talk quite as boldly or brashly as they have at times this season, but still, they were recognizably Jet-like once more, and you could hear the swagger starting to flow back into them.

"We gave up 378 yards, but who cares?'' said Jets head coach Rex Ryan of his team's defensive performance in its 22-17 win against Pittsburgh. "We're right there. We don't need anybody's help. We'll take care of it ourselves.''

See? Ryan's OK, and maybe so are his Jets now that they've stopped their ugly two-game losing streak before it derailed New York's Super Bowl Express. One clutch win, and Ryan was himself again, talking loud, talking proud and bragging about his team and where it's headed.

"One thing we talked about was how resilient our team is,'' Ryan said. "You guys [the media] get tired of it, and I don't care. This football team is resilient. We had some adversity, obviously, that we were dealing with, and our team responded. This win may surprise a lot of people, but it never surprised us.

"Like I told our guys, put a little mark here [at Heinz Field]. We may be back. Our guys battled back. We're all in.''

Which is not the same as being all in the playoffs just yet, but this Jets victory was certainly a crucial step in that direction. Getting to 10-4 and erasing the stench of back-to-back division losses to the Patriots and Dolphins -- not to mention moving beyond last week's Sal Alosi sideline tripping incident -- did wonders for Ryan's team, its confidence level and its playoff chances.

"Now we're getting part of our swagger back,'' said Jets receiver Braylon Edwards, who led New York with eight catches for 100 yards, the biggest chunk of the Jets' 170-yard passing day. "We're getting our attitude back. This is where we're going, this is what we're talking about. So let's build on it. Let's go with it. We've only got two games left before a playoff run that's going to be hard.

"We may have to come back here, and we're going to have to go back to Foxboro if we want to win it all. We're going to have to go to Kansas City or to Jacksonville. We're going to be on the road, and to get wins in our next two games right here will help build an attitude to play in the playoffs.''

With most teams, talking as much as the Jets do, both before and after games, wouldn't wear well over time. They couldn't handle the pressure they created with their bold words, and wouldn't thrive under the glare of the self-created spotlight. It just wouldn't work.

But these Jets are a little different. They do feed on their own bluster to a degree, and eagerly buy into Ryan's drumbeat of great expectations. I'm not convinced New York won't wind up paying at some point for its willingness to talk big and bold, but I also think this is the rare team that thrives on that mindset. The Jets need to play with a swagger in order to perform their best, whether they deserve that level of self-confidence or not. And in that respect, they regained some much-needed mojo just in time against the first-place Steelers.

"That's who we are, and it starts with Rex Ryan'' Edwards said. "He has that confidence and that attitude, that swagger. It starts with him and then it trickles down to the players. And if we're not winning, and we're not executing, then we can't have the swagger that helps us win games. So we're getting that swagger back, and it's going to help us.''

The Jets hung on to this one by the skin of their teeth, defending two Ben Roethlisberger passes from the New York 10 in the final nine seconds. But there were positives galore for the Jets, who played with a mixture of gritty determination and just enough desperation. For starters, New York scored its first offensive touchdown in 12 quarters, and got a solid, turnover-free game from embattled second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez, who had committed five turnovers (four interceptions and a fumble lost) without a touchdown pass in the losses to New England and Miami.

Against the Steelers, the Jets played with a sense of creativity and daring. New York called a brilliant 4th-and-1 bootleg on the Steelers 7 late in the third quarter (with Sanchez waltzing into the end zone after a superb play fake), got a pivotal jump-start on Brad Smith's 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the game, and forced Pittsburgh to go for a final-drive touchdown thanks to a game-changing safety turned in by linebacker Jason Taylor with 2:38 remaining.

Team meetings and speeches can be way overrated in the NFL, but more than one Jets player in the postgame mentioned the impassioned speech that Ryan delivered to his team Saturday night at its Pittsburgh hotel, calling it some of the best motivational work turned in by the talkative second-year New York head coach.

"He just challenged us today to play the way we know how,'' said Sanchez, who had an oddly subdued tone to his postgame comments. "To maximize our potential, and I think we did that. It was a great speech last night.''

While talk is a very big part of the Jets' game, it wasn't all talk that got the job done against the Steelers and maybe just saved New York's season. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer endured the criticism leveled at him the past two weeks and called a smart and well-balanced game. Sanchez executed the offense with precision and care on a very cold night (19-of-29 for 170 yards, 81.1 rating), and the Jets defense stepped up with the game on the line, refusing to allow Roethlisberger any last-second heroics. Throw in Smith's special teams touchdown to open the scoring, and all three phases of the Jets roster contributed to the victory.

"We felt coming in here, we weren't going to leave without a win,'' Jets receiver-return man Jerricho Cotchery said. "That was our mindset, and that was the result. We played extremely hard. We played smart and worked extremely hard this week to get better as a team. I think everyone this week got to see a better team.''

The Jets' work isn't done, of course. New York plays at Chicago Sunday, and then heads home for a Week 17 regular-season finale against Buffalo, which has won four out of its past six games after that 0-8 start. The Steelers (10-4) somehow clinched a playoff berth even with the loss, due to some complicated strength of schedule tiebreakers, but New York probably has to win at least one more game before it can celebrate.

"This was huge, because when you look at the back end of our schedule, losing two straight division games for us was terrible,'' Jets running back LaDainian Tomlinson said. "That was a horrible feeling. Then you look at the rest of the schedule and it's like, 'Oh, shoot, we've got to go to Pittsburgh. We've got to go to Chicago. Buffalo is playing well. We've got a tough job to do.'

"But at the same time, I think that's when this team plays the best, when our backs are up against the wall. Everybody's kind of counting us out, and that's when we play the best football. I actually think we've played our best football on the road [6-1] all year long.''

We've actually seen this backs-against-the-wall bit before from Ryan's Jets. Last year, even when their head coach had counted them out, they somehow made the playoffs and then made some real noise when they got there. Is New York about to launch another one of those runs? Maybe so. For the first time in weeks, the noise definitely started returning to the Jets locker room on Sunday, and in New York, that's a very good sign.

"We were the only ones that believed we were going to win this game, other than maybe some family and friends,'' Jets starting right guard Brandon Moore said. "That was it. It was big for us to come in here when nobody really believed in us, except for us. But that's what it took.''

You can't talk you way into the NFL playoffs, of course. But with Ryan and his Jets, I'm not sure they can get where they want to go without a healthy dose of the swagger and bluster. On this Sunday at least, they had something to talk about, and all was again right in their world.

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