There are three people you don't want to be following Pittsburgh's 20-17 overtime win against the N.Y. Jets in the AFC divisional playoffs Saturday: Jets kicker Doug Brien, Jets offensive coordinator Paul Hackett, and a Jets fan.
Consider Brien's plight: he missed two game-winning field goals in a single playoff game (one as the clock ran out in regulation); he turned what would have been the franchise's biggest victory in 36 years into its most crushing defeat; and he works in the tabloid capital of North America.
The New York Post put it plain and simple on its cover Sunday morning: "Jets kicker chokes twice in OT loss."
The Post's Steve Serby put Brien's performance in perspective for Boston-area sports fans: Brien, wrote Serby, is "the Jets' Bill Buckner."
It's a fitting comparison. After all, the Jets have become the pre-2004 World Series Boston Red Sox of the football world, a team teased by tantalizing glimmers of hope that turn into blinding postseason failures.
Brien attempted a 47-yard field goal with 2:02 to play. The ball clanged off the cross bar. He was given a kick at redemption on the final play in regulation. But his 43-yard attempt sailed woefully off target. Eleven minutes into overtime, Jeff Reed sent the Steelers into the AFC title game with a 33-yard field goal.
There is some historical precedent for Brien's pair of postseason failures.
Twenty-three years ago, in the 1981-82 playoffs, San Diego bested Miami, 41-38, in what's widely regarded as one of the greatest postseason games in NFL history. (This is the game noted for the iconic image of an exhausted Kellen Winslow being escorted off the field by his teammates at the end of the contest.)
Miami's Uwe Von Schamman had one game-winning effort blocked at the end of regulation. He had another blocked in overtime. The game ended badly for Von Schamman, much as it did for Brien, as Rolf Benirschke iced the game for the Chargers with a 32-yard shot.
Hackett, of course, played his own starring role in the Jets' debacle Saturday. He's been under fire the entire season for play-calling that's euphemistically called conservative (note the repeated draw plays on third and long), for his lack of imagination and for a failure to take advantage of talented young players such as running back LaMont Jordan.
Against Pittsburgh, Hackett actually opened up the offense in the first half, allowing Jets quarterback Chad Pennington to unleash a series of bombs in an effort to loosen up the defense. But Hackett retreated into a shell in the second half and the bottom line speaks for itself: the Jets offense mustered a mere 3 points the entire game.
Even an emotionless observer like the Cold, Hard Football Facts felt pity for Jets fans forced to suffer through a weekly hibernation on the sidelines by Hackett and, it seems, the entire Jets coaching staff. Note the inexplicable clock management effort at the end of regulation. Here's how it went down:
• The Jets moved the ball to the Pittsburgh 23 with six seconds to play and took a timeout.
• Pennington came back out under center.
• Instead of diving forward for a few precious inches, or even a yard or two, he took a knee and a 1-yard loss.
• The Jets called another timeout, stopping the clock with four seconds to play.
• Brien trotted out for a field-goal attempt.
In other words, the Jets coaching staff called two timeouts simply to lose a yard and run two seconds off the clock. And they passed on the opportunity to gain a single precious yard by choosing not to call the second most conservative play in football – a QB sneak. In retrospect, that net loss of 2 yards was the difference between victory and defeat.
Jets fans, of course, suffered miserably. Their team trailed 10-0 in the first half, but then did most everything an underdog needs to do when playing on the road. The Jets returned a punt for a touchdown (a 75-yard effort by Santana Moss) and took a 17-10 lead in the fourth quarter when Reggie Tongue intercepted a Ben Roethlisberger pass and returned it 86 yards.
The Steelers, for their part, did everything possible to give the game away. They gave up a pair of game-changing plays. They committed three turnovers for the first time all season. They trailed at home for the first time since they were down 3-0 to the Patriots on Oct. 31. And Jerome Bettis fumbled for the first time all season, killing a potential scoring drive.
Jets fans, in other words, watched their team force the 15-1 Steelers into a mental melt down. They watched their team twice line-up for game winning scores that would have put the Jets into the AFC title game. And they watched their team walk off the field postseason losers once again.
"If you're a Jets fan, it's all about pain," said one fan quoted in The New York Daily News.
"I knew he was missing that field goal," said another. "If you're a Jets fan, you know."