PITTSBURGH -- There's a faint line between counterfeits and contenders.
For the past two weeks, the New York Jets appeared to be posers. No team had a better record at the end of November. Then a pair of unsettling defeats and a sideline controversy knocked the Jets catawampus.
Faster than you could say "Rich Kotite," the Jets went from cruising along to crisis time.
"People thought we were falling off and we were frauds," Jets defensive end Shaun Ellis said. "In the end, we just put it behind us amid everything that was going on."
The Jets returned to the contender ranks Sunday with a gritty 22-17 triumph over the Pittsburgh Steelers at snow-blown Heinz Field. The Jets are all but in the playoffs with their 10th victory and two games left.
So much went well for the Jets (10-4), their performance practically was a mind-eraser of the past two weeks.
Beleaguered offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer called an effective game against the NFL's fourth-rated defense. The Jets' struggling ground attack frequently came through. Tormented quarterback Mark Sanchez was sharp and efficient, leading the Jets to their first offensive touchdown in 12 quarters. Their scandalous special teams produced a touchdown on the first play. Their defense denied Ben Roethlisberger on the final drive.
"You guys get tired of [hearing] it, and I don't care," Jets head coach Rex Ryan said. "This football team is resilient. We had some adversity, obviously, that we were dealing with. But our team responded.
"Same old Jets came down to Pittsburgh and got a win."
Ryan's snarky comment was a swipe at the familiar refrain crestfallen Jets fans have heard and recited over the years. Just when you think they're about to do something special ...
Obviously, these weren't those same old Jets, who never had won a game in the state of Pennsylvania -- let alone at Pittsburgh (10-4) -- in franchise history.
Had the Jets lost in Pittsburgh, however, the mad descent would have gained exponential velocity. The Jets would've taken a three-game skid into next week's game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. They would have been dreading the possibility of needing to beat the Buffalo Bills in the regular-season finale to get into the playoffs.
Athletes aren't supposed to think in those terms. They're trained to compartmentalize -- forget the last result, concentrate on the upcoming game, don't think beyond that.
But they're human beings. The Jets' minds were drifting into dark places.
"It's natural," Ellis said. "We don't want to go down that road."
Instead, the Jets pulled a U-turn.
They were reeling after a pair of appalling defeats to division opponents. The New England Patriots plastered them 45-3 in Week 14. The Miami Dolphins beat them 10-6 at the Meadowlands in Week 15 -- the Jets' third game without a touchdown in their new $1.6 billion stadium.
Then there was the spectacle created by strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi's sideline scandal. The Jets were visited by NFL officials for the third time this season, perhaps a league-leading stat, because Alosi formed a cordon and tripped Dolphins gunner Nolan Carroll. But how much did special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff know? And when did he know it?
"There were so many reasons," said Jets outside linebacker Jason Taylor, "why we needed to get back to winning."
Brad Smith gave the Jets a jolt when he returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. That certainly helped ease the tension.
In retrospect, maybe the Alosi headlines took some of the pressure off Sanchez and Schottenheimer.
Jets receiver Jerricho Cotchery marveled at the offense Sunday. He said he and right guard Brandon Moore at one point locked eyes in the huddle, amazed at the calls Schottenheimer was making and the personnel packages he was inserting. There was a palpable rhythm to the offense, Cotchery noted.
"It was the 'Six and Schotty Show,' " Cotchery said. Sanchez wears No. 6.
Sanchez completed 19 of his 29 attempts for 170 yards -- modest numbers. But he ran a bootleg into the end zone from 7 yards out and oversaw an offense that didn't commit a turnover.
LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene combined for 89 yards on 23 carries, which was enough to keep the Steelers' top-rated run defense honest. The Steelers had allowed a measly 60.1 rushing yards a game entering Sunday.
Sanchez completed six of his seven play-action passes for 84 yards.
"That's about as gutsy a performance as you'll find," Ryan said of Sanchez. "He was absolutely outstanding. I knew he would respond. He's tougher than nails."
The Jets boarded their charter flight back to New Jersey in a much better mood than they've gone home the past two weeks. Their burden has eased considerably. That prized ticket to the AFC tournament is within their reach.
The Jets, for this week, are contenders again.
"It was damn near a must win for us," Ellis said. "It's great to pull this game out.
"But who knows what happens next?"