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PITTSBURGH -- As Rex Ryan stood before his team Saturday night, the emotions of a long and stressful week poured out. He always gives a fiery speech on the eve of games -- that's who he is -- but this was different. He got so worked up, according to players, that he nearly cried.
"A tear didn't drop," cornerback Darrelle Revis said, "but his eyes were a little watery."
Revis said it evoked memories of Ryan's famous team meeting last Nov. 16, when the New York Jets' coach choked up the day after a crushing loss to the Atlanta Falcons. This time, Ryan's mission was to get the Jets ready for the Pittsburgh Steelers and to save a once-promising season from ruin.
So he reached back and brought his best heat. According to one player, Ryan told the team, "We can be Super Bowl champs. I know we can be Super Bowl champs. But you have to know it."
|Rex Ryan got the Jets fired up, and then they took care of business in the cold.|
Is that reason the Jets held on in dramatic fashion Sunday to stun the Steelers 22-17 at an ice box called Heinz Field? Did that speech allow Marquice Cole to get a hand on Ben Roethlisberger's final pass into the end zone as time expired?
Who really knows? Ryan can do the motivational thing with the best of them, but words of passion are hollow unless there's some substance behind them. In this case, there was.
After a week of soul-searching and adversity -- see Tripgate -- Ryan's team, which seemed in a post-Miami funk all week, was mentally ready for its biggest challenge of the season. More importantly, it had the right plan.
For three hours, in the crucible of a must-have game, the Jets (10-4) resembled the team they were supposed to be -- and still can be.
Mark Sanchez, under intense scrutiny because of a three-game slump, managed the game nicely and committed no turnovers against one of the league's best defenses.
Embattled coordinator Brian Schottenheimer called his best game of the year, maybe the game of his life, breaking tendencies to outfox a Hall of Fame defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau.
There were no dumb penalties, no fumbles, no dropped passes and, except for an un-Ryan-like prevent scheme on the final drive that nearly resulted in disaster, the defense made enough key stops.
Brad Smith, one of the team's MVPs, scored on another kickoff return, this time with both shoes.
And nobody got tripped on the Jets' sideline.
"We talked about how resilient this team is," said Ryan, doing some well-earned crowing afterward. "You [reporters] get tired of hearing it, but I don't care. This win may have surprised a lot of people, but it never surprised us."
It was the Jets' first win in Pittsburgh -- ever. (They were 0-7.) They scored their first offensive touchdown in 11 quarters, with Sanchez fooling the Pittsburgh defense with a 7-yard bootleg run on a fourth-and-1 in the third quarter. Until then, it looked like they were going to go from Thanksgiving to Christmas without a touchdown.
Make no mistake, this was a must-win. If the Jets had lost a third straight game, it may have crushed their psyche. Their season was hanging in the balance on that final drive, when Roethlisberger led the Steelers (10-4) all the way to the Jets' 10. He had two shots from the 10, but both passes in the end zone were incomplete.
"We had faith in the defense, but you're like, 'Man, we've won so many games like this, you don't want to have one bite you in the butt,'" guard Brandon Moore said.
Before Sunday, the Jets were stuck on nine wins. They were like Dudley Moore, in search of their perfect 10. After embarrassing losses to the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins, this was a team teetering on the brink of collapse.
Sanchez was playing poorly, and he seemed stung that Ryan called him out last week, telling the world that he considered pulling his fair-haired quarterback from the Miami game. Schottenheimer was on the hot seat, presiding over an underachieving offense. According to a few players, the practices last week weren't all that crisp.
Disaster loomed in Pittsburgh, but Ryan turned feisty Saturday night at the team hotel. As tight end Dustin Keller said, "You could see fire in his eyes."
It wasn't all rah-rah, either. According to players, Ryan called out the offensive line, challenging the unit -- dreadful last week -- to play up to its reputation.
That stung some of the linemen, for sure. But you know what? The line was terrific, allowing only one sack and leading the way for 106 yards rushing against the league's top-rated run defense. The Steelers were on a historic pace, yielding only 60 yards per game.
One week after the Green Wall of Shame and the Sal Alosi debacle, the offensive line -- minus right tackle Damien Woody -- erected a true wall for Sanchez (19-for-29, 170 yards), who had time against the Steelers' ferocious blitz.
"This was pretty much the 6 and Schotty show," said wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, referring to Sanchez and Schottenheimer.
For a change, the Jets' offense dictated the tempo, utilizing all its weapons. Wide receivers Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes enjoyed their most productive game in tandem, combining for 14 catches for 140 yards.
For a change, the Jets resembled a legitimate contender. Maybe it was Ryan's speech. Maybe it was sheer desperation. In the end, with a playoff berth oh-so-close, Ryan's familiar bravado was back.
"I told our guys, 'Mark your spot here because we may be back,'" he said.
Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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