Win a game the way the Jets did last Monday night in Atlanta on national television, with rookie quarterback Geno Smith leading a spectacular last-minute drive to finish it off, and suddenly the expectations grow larger. As well they should.
Even if no one had thought the Jets could manage more than three wins all season, the fact that they got to 3-2, and the way they made it there, changed the equation. In this league, when a team does something like that one week, it's natural to expect it again the next. Especially at home against a winless team.
But if Sunday's 19-6 loss to the previously 0-4 Steelers showed one thing, it was this: For all the good feelings created by the 30-28 thriller over the Falcons, the Jets aren't ready to take that next -- and most important -- step.
"We talk about we're going to be a playoff team," linebacker Calvin Pace said in a somber locker room. "But to be a playoff team, you've got to win more than one game. If you win one, lose one, you're going to end up 8-8. So we've got to be better than that."
One step forward, one step back. Yup. That's where you end up: 8-8 and thinking about the what-ifs heading into next year.
Is it greedy for Jets fans to be thinking like this, especially after the nearly universal predictions of doom and gloom from just about everywhere outside their locker room? Perhaps. But in a league in which surprise teams emerge every year, and with the way the Jets and their rookie quarterback had performed at times this season, you seize the moment and enjoy the ride if it's there to be taken.
But that ride requires the one thing the Jets simply don't have right now -- or at least don't have enough of. Rex Ryan knows it, and so do his players.
"The thing we have to do is play with more consistency," he said. "It starts with the turnovers. If you're turning the ball over and not getting takeaways on defense, obviously that's a recipe for not being consistent or successful."
As well as they played through much of the masterpiece against the Falcons, the Jets were not up to the task against a desperate Ben Roethlisberger and his Steelers. Perhaps it was a sign of things to come when defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson couldn't quite wrap up Roethlisberger in the end zone for what would have been a safety on the Steelers' second series. The quarterback wriggled free and got rid of the ball just in time.
The Jets' defense was similarly off the rest of the way, just missing on a number of plays, then missing badly on a turning-point moment early in the third quarter. With the Steelers leading 9-6, Roethlisberger had third-and-1 from the Steelers' 45. With the Jets expecting a run, cornerback Antonio Cromartie was beaten badly by Emmanuel Sanders on a deep route down the right side. Roethlisberger delivered a perfect pass and Sanders took it the rest of the way for a 55-yard touchdown and a 16-6 lead.
The Jets got no closer, with Smith misfiring at all the wrong times. After that flawless performance against the Falcons, when he threw three touchdown passes and drove the Jets for the winning points in the final moments, he looked more like the struggling rookie this time.
After the Steelers' touchdown drive, Smith threw a pass up for grabs from the Steelers' 23, inexplicably trying to thread the ball between three defenders to backup tight end Konrad Reuland. Safety Ryan Clark picked it off at the 1. Smith later said he was trying to throw the ball away.
And when the Jets were in position to score in the fourth quarter, having reached the Steelers' 12, Smith was picked off at the 3, this time on a pass intended for Stephen Hill just as the quarterback was getting hit.
"We've said time and time again, especially in the red zone or in critical situations, those can't happen," Smith said. "We were beat by a team that was better than us today."
There will be another chance next week in another big spot for Smith and the Jets as they take on New England at home in a division game of huge importance.
"I look forward to it," Smith said. "We need to start putting together a few wins to set ourselves up for the future."
One more chance to take that next step. Or to show they're just not ready yet.