When the Jets took the field for in the 2004 AFC Divisional Playoffs against the Steelers, few gave them much of a chance. Pittsburgh looked invincible. They were 15-1. They hadn't lost since Week 2. Ben Roethlisberger had never lost a start in the NFL. What really made them look unbeatable was what happened Week 17. They had already locked up the AFC's top seed and had nothing to play for. Roethlisberger was nursing a rib injury. Pittsburgh had its B squad play the finale in Buffalo, and the Steeler backups beat a Bills team that would have made the Playoffs with a win.
Ironically that put the Jets into the Playoffs through the back door. The Jets had started 5-0 in 2004 but finished 10-6 and losers of their last two. This led to a classic Herman Edwards press conference where he talked about how all that mattered was being on the bus no matter where you sat or how you got on. The Playoffs were the bus in this analogy.
The Jets went on to pull off an overtime upset in San Diego over Drew Brees and the Chargers. A boneheaded Eric Barton roughing the passer penalty negated an epic goal line stand at the end of the fourth quarter and allowed the game to get to overtime. In overtime, however, the Chargers made a strategic blunder. Moving the ball almost at will, they went into a shell once they hit the outer fringes of field goal range, running the ball into the line. The Jets sold out against the run. Settling for a 40 yard try, Nate Kaeding missed the kick. John Madden calling the game on ABC was critical of the way the Chargers handled the situation, noting Antonio Gates might have been able to walk into the end zone had San Diego called a play action pass. Chad Pennington drove the Jets into field goal range, and Doug Brien kicked the game-winner to send the Jets to Pittsburgh.
There was some reason for hope. Even though the Steelers were 15-1, the Jets had played them even for three quarters in Heinz Field in a December game before losing control through miscues in the fourth quarter. This led Shaun Ellis in a postgame interview to declare the Jets would win if there was a rematch in the Playoffs. That quote got plenty of media attention in the week leading up to the game.
The Jets were playing at less than 100%, though. Chad Pennington was playing through a torn rotator cuff suffered in Buffalo earlier in the season. Nobody knew what the injury was at the time, but it was clear he was at less than 100%. Pennington caught the flu during the week, forcing him to miss Wednesday practice. Backup quarterback Quincy Carter mysteriously left the team that week. We later found out he had entered rehab. That left third string quarterback Brooks Bollinger to take first team reps at Wednesday practice.
The Jets were also missing their star pass rusher, John Abraham who had missed significant time due to a knee injury. A week earlier Abraham had said to the press he didn't want to return and risk needing surgery. In the context that he was about to become a free agent, these words were not well-received.
I was a freshman in college at the time on my last week of Winter Break with nothing else to do all week but get ready for this game so I'm guessing that's how I remember all of these details so clearly. That and this game stuck with me.
I'll also never forget an exchange I had with my dad. Some distant relative had died that week. Family was in town. He had invited over some cousin I had never met. I'm not sure why he's telling me this. It's going to be Saturday during the game. That's fine. They're from Pittsburgh.
I think I would be fired if I printed my reaction. Let's just say it was not good.
There was some pregame intrigue as CBS camera caught Roethlisberger shaking his throwing hand as though it was in pain during warm ups and a member of the Steelers staff pouring ice water on it. It was an early sign Roethlisberger might not be right.
The game did not start out well for the Jets, though. The Steelers jumped out to a quick 10-0 lead. At 3-0, a Pennington interception to Troy Polamalu gave Pittsburgh a short field which they turned into a Jerome Bettis touchdown.
The Jets had a big answer drive, capped on a 42 yard Doug Brien field goal. It was a bad snap, which holder Tony Gowin did a great job getting down.
One of the game's biggest moments came later in the second quarter. A Steelers drive stalled, and punter Chris Gardocki outkicked his coverage. Santana Moss took it 75 yards down the left sideline to the house to tie the game 10-10. When my team is a big underdog as the Jets were that day, I'm never sure whether I should brace myself for a loss or go all in. I had been bracing myself, but that changed when Moss was around the 30 yard line as I was screaming, "Go! Go!" I was all in at this point.
The game was a stunning 10-10 tie at halftime.
Then came a second game-changing moment in the third quarter. With the Steelers driving in the third quarter Roethlisberger made an errant throw under pressure that Reggie Tongue picked off and took 85 yards for a touchdown. The Jets have the lead. They have a second non-offensive touchdown. You can hear a pin drop in Heinz Field. I'm running through my house right as a bunch of relatives I've never met are walking through our front door.
The Steelers kept driving. The Jets' defense, perhaps feeling the effects of a third straight road game after the first two went to overtime, seems gassed. With Pittsburgh appearing to head for the tying touchdown, a rare Jerome Bettis fumble allows New York to preserve the lead. The Jets offense stalls, though. The Steelers get it back and drive it right back down the field. A 4 yard shovel pass from Roethlisberger to Hines Ward for a touchdown tied the game 17-17.
Pennington rallied the Jets and drove them to the Pittsburgh 28 as the two minute warning approached. The drive stalled, and Doug Brien came out to attempt a 47 yard field goal. He hit it true. It was heading right down the pipe. It hit the crossbar and bounced back to the field of play. Brien couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe it. Nobody could believe it. That kick looked good. Heinz Field is going nuts. The Steelers are getting ready to drive it down the field on a gassed Jets defense for the win.
Then came something nobody expected. On the first play after the miss, Ben Roethlisberger air mails a throw intended for Plaxico Burress. It's intercepted by David Barrett, who returns it to the Pittsburgh 37. After a gut punch, suddenly the Jets are back in business.
The Jets gained 12 yards on their first two plays to get to the Pittsburgh 25. What happened next would leave Brien forever in Jets infamy, but to some extent that is unfair. Everybody remembers Doug Brien as the goat of the game. Look, he missed the field goals. Blaming him for that is fair, but he does not deserve the most blame. The Jets lost this game first and foremost because of a series of inexplicable and inexcusable coaching decisions on this drive.
The worst part was I knew it was coming from the second the Jets got to the 25. Herman Edwards and Paul Hackett were going to play for the long field goal. What else would you expect from a head coach who couldn't manage a game and the worst offensive coordinator the Jets have employed (and they have employed some pretty terrible coordinators) in the two decades plus I have watched the team?
The Steelers were expecting the Jets to run and play for the long field goal. That is exactly what happened. Let's put the decision to play for the long field goal in context.
Brien was a shaky kicker under normal circumstances. Now he was trying a pressure kick on the road. Not only that, but you know he was spooked by just hitting a great kick that fell short. On top of this, Heinz Field is a notoriously difficult place to kick field goals. When they moved there, the Steelers had a kicker named Kris Brown who was going along fine. They eventually had to get rid of him because he couldn't kick accurately in Heinz Field. And you couldn't have found worse kicking conditions on this field than a chilly Saturday night in the middle of January.
Let's also factor in that the Jets had watch the Chargers lose a week before because San Diego did the exact same thing in an almost identical situation.
And it's not like Mark Sanchez was playing quarterback. Pennington might have been playing injured, but you could trust him to protect the football. He wasn't going to take a sack or throw an interception in that spot. The Jets needed to keep attacking to make this as easy on Brien as possible.
All of this was bad enough, but the Edwards/Hackett braintrust outdid itself with the final decision in this sequence. After slamming Curtis Martin and Lamont Jordan into the line twice for two combined yards, the Jets called a timeout with 6 seconds left on the clock. Somebody got the bright idea that this left too much time on the clock and might allow a kickoff return that could go for a touchdown. Pennington was sent out to take the knee to bleed the clock and lose a yard so the Jets could take another timeout.
We've got what would be a shaky kicker under normal circumstances who is spooked after missing a kick. This is a pressure kick in extreme adverse conditions. And you've got the Jets taking the knee to make the kick even longer. How about trusting that Mike Westhoff's coverage unit can make a tackle.
Or better yet, WAIT AND LET THE CLOCK RUN TWO OR THREE EXTRA SECONDS BEFORE YOU CALL THE TIMEOUT IF YOU'RE SO WORRIED ABOUT THIS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
So Brien was sent out to try from 43 yards. I remember Dick Enberg saying something like, "This is to send the Jets to the AFC Championship Game for the first time since 1998." I remember seeing the kick was going to miss almost immediately. Normally you'll see a field goal try at least start out between the goal posts before hooking or fading wide. I don't think the ball was ever between the goal posts. It started out wide left and hooked so badly that it might not have even hit the net.
It was obvious what had happened. Brien had come up just short on the first try so he got it into his head that he needed to kick the second one as hard as possible. In doing so, he hit it so hard that he lost all accuracy, and the ball hooked wildly the same way a golf shot will if you just swing with all of your might.
I can forgive a shaky kicker doing that under the circumstances. What I can't forgive is a coaching staff that should have known all of the things I mentioned above knowingly and willingly putting a shaky kicker in that situation without at least making an attempt to get the ball closer.
At this point the game was torture. Everybody knew there was only one way this could end in overtime. The Jets defense was totally exhausted and was about to play a third straight overtime road game. The offense was being run by a damaged quarterback against the best defense in the league, and even if they got into range at this point attempting a field goal might not have been an option. Could you really run Brien out there again after that?
The Jets won the coin toss and even picked up a first down, but things stalled from there. They had to punt. The Steelers took it 13 plays into scoring range. They only had to covert a single third down. I remember Shaun Ellis flushing Roethlisberger right and just was not able to get to him for the sack. Ben hit Hines Ward for a 17 yard gain. The Steelers drove to the Jets 15 and sent out their own kicker, Jeff Reed, for a 33 yard field goal. The officials said he made it and that it barely snuck through the right upright. Never in a million years will you convince me the kick was good. The Steelers went to the AFC Championship Game. The 2004 season ended in heartbreak for the Jets.
When I started writing this, I was thinking things through and wondering whether this was as brutal as I remember. I mean looking at this objectively, the Jets needed two non-offensive touchdowns and a bunch of other Steeler miscues just to keep this even. Maybe this one stuck out because I was still stinging from the Yankees blowing the ALCS to the Red Sox a few months earlier. Even winning this game would have sent the Jets to Foxborough to play the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. New England had swept the Jets. It was probably the best team of their dynasty run. Despite the divisional opponent factor and New England getting hit with a blizzard on game day serving as potential equalizers, a win would have been a tough task.
Then I what made this game the most painful popped into my head. With all of the details I remembered about this game, I had forgotten the heartbreaking Curtis Martin postgame press conference. You never saw Curtis Martin show any emotion, but he was clearly in pain. He talked about how the Jets had left blood on the field. He probably knew this might have been his last chance at a Super Bowl. It turned out to be just that.
This was in many ways the end of Herman Edwards. Early in this series I mentioned how the Oakland loss in 2002 was the peak of his tenure. This game essentially marked the end. The Jets had a disappointing 4-12 in 2005, and he ran to Kansas City.
It has almost been a decade, and I still have a pit in my stomach thinking about that game.