INDIANAPOLIS - It was an almost imperceptible moment in the game, but it probably cost the Jets a ticket to the Super Bowl.
Early in the second half - on just the second play - Shonn Greene took a handoff and ran for 7 yards. But he also took a hit to his left ribs, got to his feet slowly and headed off the field. Then he went to the locker room.
By the end of the game, he was on the sideline, wearing his helmet, taking practice handoffs from the backup quarterback.
But he never got back on the field.
That left the load of the "ground-and-pound" Jets offense to Thomas Jones, who a few weeks ago might have been up to the task. But slowed by a knee injury that had allowed Greene to become such a playoff sensation for the Jets, Jones was unable to produce. The torch was passed back to him, and all he could do was hold it and watch it smolder.
On eight second-half carries, Jones managed 25 yards. The Jets as a team scraped together only 155 yards of total offense after Greene left the game.
A third-round draft pick who started the season third on the depth chart wound up being an indispensable part. But he had to watch the season end from the sideline.
He had to watch the season end because he was on the sideline.
"Any time you have a guy go down, it definitely affects you," veteran fullback Tony Richardson said. "You have a game plan to have all your guys up and healthy. When one guy goes down, it's hard to do that."
Jones and Greene had become a formidable 1-2 punch for the Jets. But it was Greene who had evolved into the knockout punch. With only Jones in the backfield - and no one else on the active roster to even consider as a running back - the Jets could only throw jabs.
"It made it difficult," Mark Sanchez said of missing the big-play element Greene brings. "They could just kind of key in on what we were doing. Shonn provides an explosive element to our running game and he's someone who can really get to the edge and outrun some guys . . . It put us in a hole. It obviously didn't help."
Jones might never see the field again as a Jet. He has one year left on his contract but is owed a $3-million roster bonus in March. That could be a hard bill for the Jets to pay for a running back who'll be 32 at the start of the 2010 season and had a knee injury that limited him down the stretch of this playoff run.
And in addition to having Greene back next season, they'll have Leon Washington in whatever capacity after he suffered a broken leg earlier this season.
"I definitely want T.J. back," said guard Damian Woody, who also acknowledged the reality of the situation. "At the end of the day, the front office is going to do what's best for the organization and we'll see what happens."
Jones has been unavailable for comment all week and disappeared from the postgame locker room before he could speak with reporters.
That left only Greene to answer questions about a running game that melted without him on the field. He talked about how hard it was to watch from the sideline and paid the proper respects to his elder.
"He's a great back," Greene said of Jones. "I don't think it was that big of a loss."
He obviously was proved wrong about at least one of those statements.