This improbable run was coming to an end under the weight of yet another brilliant performance by four-time Most Valuable Player Peyton Manning, and Cotchery was near tears on the Jets' sideline.
"I just couldn't believe the season was about to be over," he said Sunday in the Jets' subdued locker room after their 30-17 loss to the Colts in the AFC Championship Game. "We all thought it was going to last beyond today. Watching that clock tick down, you couldn't believe it. We thought this thing was going to last."
It was all the more painful after the Jets looked for a good long while as if they were on the way to a colossal playoff upset. They ran up a 17-6 lead thanks to two touchdown passes by rookie Mark Sanchez, the defense had Manning looking thoroughly confused and this really did look like a jaw-dropping, Miami-here-we-come moment.
The stars seemed aligned. The superstitions, too. Rex Ryan never did wash out that grease stain in the sweatshirt he wore to practice. He worked the players up into a lather Saturday night, having them believe the Colts had insulted the Jets' manhood by pulling their starters Week 16. Ryan even brought along his dad, Buddy Ryan, who was a first-year defensive coach on the Jets' Super Bowl III team.
How stunning was this turn of events in the first half? The only noise you heard inside the building was the cheers of the contingent of Jets fans. Other than that, it was mostly silence.
"We had it going," safety Kerry Rhodes said. "Early on, we were getting pressure on Peyton. He was shaky, jittery."
At one point, Manning was sacked on two successive plays; he'd gone down only 10 times in 16 regular-season games. Reggie Wayne was a non-factor. The running game, too.
Meanwhile, Sanchez hooked up with Braylon Edwards on an 80-yard TD pass and later hit Dustin Keller with a 9-yarder to make it 14-6. Some more runs from rookie Shonn Greene, then a 48-yard field goal by Jay Feely and a 17-6 lead made you wonder: Can this really be?
And then, in a flash that only Manning can deliver, it was over. A four-play, 80-yard, 58-second touchdown drive made it 17-13 with 1:13 left in the half. Another scoring pass midway through the third quarter. And another in the fourth.
By the end, the Jets had given up 24 unanswered points and never scored again. This was the 1998 AFC Championship Game all over again. Only worse. The Jets were up 10-0 on the Broncos early in the second half 11 years ago and then gave up 23 unanswered points in a 23-10 loss.
The Broncos went on to win the Super Bowl, and it looks as if the Colts may do the same. Indy is 16-0 in games it has tried to win this season.
The Jets talked a big game all week, suggesting they were on the kind of roll that would get them to the Super Bowl.
The Colts? "We kept our mouths shut and went to work," Manning said afterward, an obvious swipe at the Jets.
It took Manning a while to get adjusted, but once he figured the Jets out, the game essentially was over. Looking away from Wayne, who was blanketed by Darrelle Revis, he instead went to Austin Collie and Pierre Garçon. The pair had 18 catches for 274 yards and two TDs.
The dream that once looked so tantalizingly close had come to a crushing end, taking the Jets' hopes with it and extending the Super Bowl drought, already 40 years and counting before the game, at least one more season.
But at least there is hope, something the Jets have had too little of. At least there is a rookie quarterback, a rookie coach, a rookie running back and a big-time defense. At least this time, wait until next year isn't simply a hollow lament but a realistic expectation.