PITTSBURGH - Rex Ryan threw down his headset in disgust, angry that his team again had squandered its shot at getting to the Super Bowl.
The Jets' bid to do that for the first time since 1969 fell short Sunday night in the Steel City. They couldn't dig out of a 24-0 first-half hole and lost to the Steelers, 24-19, watching their season end in the AFC Championship Game for the second consecutive year.
Rashard Mendenhall ran for 121 yards, including 95 in the first half, and Ben Roethlisberger made big plays with his arm and legs, including a 2-yard TD run.
"We came up short tonight, just like we did last year, one game away from the big game," Ryan said. "That's what we play for - to advance to the Super Bowl. But I'm proud of our guys. We played a good half, but we just never played a good game.
"It cuts your heart out."
While the Steelers move on to play the Packers in Super Bowl XLV on Feb. 6 in Arlington, Texas, the Jets can only lament letting another opportunity slip through the cracks the way Mendenhall kept breaking through their shoddy tackling.
"I think when you get so far and don't win, it gets a little frustrating because you know you have it," tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson said. "You know you have the tools, you know you have the team. But you can't say you've accomplished the goal if you haven't won. So you could say a lot of good things, but at the end of the day, we lost."
The numbers depict how one-sided this game was in the first 30 minutes. Pittsburgh rolled up 231 yards and was virtually unstoppable, grinding through the Jets' third-ranked rushing defense for 135 yards. The Jets mustered only 50 yards - including 1 rushing yard - and had a whopping 21:04-8:56 disadvantage in time of possession.
"It just hurts," Mark Sanchez said. "It hurts any time you lose, especially when you get so close to your ultimate goal.
"I'm proud of the way our guys fought in the second half. Offensively and defensively, we just started so slow. And to come out as flat as we did against a great team . . . it just doesn't work.
"So it just hurts."
Trailing 24-3, the Jets responded with their best drive of the game to start the third quarter. Sanchez, who completed 20 of 33 for 233 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, hit a wide-open Santonio Holmes off a nifty play-action fake. The 45-yard bomb ended a five-play, 90-yard drive and made it 24-10 with 12:13 left in the third.
Lineman Mike DeVito's safety brought the Jets within 24-12 with 7:38 left, and Sanchez hit Jerricho Cotchery for a 4-yard TD to finish a 10-play, 58-yard drive. That cut Pittsburgh's advantage to 24-19 with 3:06 left and made things extremely interesting.
But Pittsburgh iced it with two first downs on its ensuing drive. On third-and-6 at the Jets' 40, Big Ben scrambled and hit Antonio Brown for a 14-yard gain, sealing the Jets' fate just after the two-minute warning.
"Total defeat, letdown," defensive end Shaun Ellis said. "You can't describe it. Guys who were here last year were like, 'We did it again. We lost it.' "
Pittsburgh stuffed the ball down the Jets' throats from the game's opening possession. Mendenhall punctuated a 15-play, 66-yard drive that took 9:06 off the clock with a determined run on first-and-goal at the 1, powering through Bart Scott and extending the ball just over the goal line for a 7-0 lead.
"Basics of tackling, myself included," Sione Pouha said. "I was probably the prime missed tackler today. It was just the basics of tackling and getting Mendenhall down. That's it. The basics."
Pittsburgh went ahead 10-0 on Shaun Suisham's 20-yard field goal. Then the Steelers carved up the Jets through the air, throwing for 57 yards on a 66-yard drive. Roethlisberger scrambled right for 2 yards and a 17-0 lead.
The Steelers delivered a serious blow with 1:13 left in the half when blitzing cornerback Ike Taylor clobbered Sanchez on third-and-17 from the Jets' 26, knocking the ball loose as Sanchez was preparing to throw. William Gay scooped up the ball at the 19-yard line and darted untouched into the end zone for a 24-0 bulge.
The Jets finally scored with nine seconds left in the half on Nick Folk's 42-yard field goal.
Not even a team that made a living on last-minute comebacks could overcome such a huge deficit.
"This is the toughest loss I've ever been a part of," an emotional Jason Taylor said. "So close you could see it and smell it and feel it. It's so hard to get to this point. We had such a tough road all season throughout the playoffs and having to beat two quality teams to get to this point. We needed one more to get to where we wanted to go. It wasn't meant to be.
"Sometimes God has a different direction for you than what you would hope for. You don't always understand it, but it is what it is."
With 17 potential free agents on a team that was built to win now, there were a lot of somber faces in the locker room.
Said Pouha: "I don't know who's going to be here, who's going to be gone or if I'm here or going to be gone. That's the most heartbreaking thing is knowing that this room is not going to be the same anymore."
Perhaps, but no matter who returns, Ryan expects to be right back in this position.
"Our goal for next year," he said, "I've got news for you. It won't change and it'll never change. We're going to chase that Super Bowl until we get it, and then we're going to chase it after that again.
"If people want to criticize us, then you go ahead. But you've really got no right."