Heading into the AFC championship game yesterday, Rex Ryan and the New York Jets had done a remarkable job of impersonating the Ravens of a year earlier. Led by a rookie head coach and rookie quarterback – and with the same person, Ryan, running the defense, which included former Ravens Bart Scott and Jim Leonhard – they slipped into the playoffs as a wild card qualifier and won twice on the road to reach the title game against the top seed.
It was the same story, almost identically. And then, as if the Jets hadn't channeled the Ravens completely enough, they found themselves down by a field goal early in the fourth quarter yesterday in Indianapolis – exactly the same position the Ravens were in a year earlier in their title game against Pittsburgh.
The Ravens wound up losing by nine points. (I'm sure you would rather I didn't review the details.) The Jets, after leading by 11 late in the first half, wound up losing by 13. But while they're disappointed now, they'll eventually take great pride in having gotten as close to the Super Bowl as they did, just as the Ravens did a year ago.
Ryan, after a long tenure as an assistant here, did a terrific job in his first year in New York. He inherited a soft team that needed a complete mental and physical overhaul, and he successfully engineered one, installing a Ravens-style platform built on tough defense and a strong rushing game. Along the way, he talked trash, cried in the locker room, swaggered around with his big belly and clearly gained the respect and support of his players. They were excited to play for him.
It was enough to make you wonder why other teams, including the Ravens, doubted his head coaching mettle; before landing in New York, Ryan unsuccessfully interviewed for vacancies in Atlanta, Miami and Baltimore after the 2007 season. He has since said he probably came across as too "rough around the edges" in interviews. Tweaking his approach a year later, he was ready.
In the wake of the Jets' surprising playoff run, it is easy – too easy -- to say he shouldn't have been bypassed by anyone. We'll see. John Harbaugh has won 23 games and engineered two playoff appearances in his two seasons with the Ravens. That's strong stuff. And Ryan, in the end, couldn't surpass what Harbaugh accomplished as a rookie head coach. Just as the Ravens ran into a Pittsburgh team on a roll in the title game a year ago, the Jets ran into Peyton Manning at the top of his game yesterday. Sorry, try again. The Colts scored the game's final 24 points, shattering Ryan's top-ranked defense.
And now comes the hard part for the Jets. Once the excitement of getting so far in the playoffs subsides, you're left with what to do for an encore. And as Harbaugh and the Ravens learned this season, encores can be brutally tough.
If Ryan and the Jets continue to channel the Ravens, look at what is in store for them – a fan base thinking the Super Bowl is an eminently attainable goal, sending expectations into the stratosphere. That's what the Ravens faced this season, and without a doubt, it was their toughest opponent. They were still young in places and prone to certain mistakes, but they were *supposed *to make the Super Bowl, so defeats, even close ones, raised concerns and stirred panic and, well, it was just a tall yardstick to measure up against overall. Too tall in the end.
Things change dramatically from year to year no matter who you are – Pittsburgh didn't even make the playoffs this season after winning the Super Bowl a year ago – so honestly, it is borderline unfair to suggest that getting close one year means you're almost there. Oh, yeah? In the end, you just start over again the next season along with everyone else. Your surprising playoff success is history. Someone else gets hot. The breaks fall differently.
If you're smart and good and lucky – not necessarily in that order – maybe you can live up to those great expectations. But either way, it's a tough road to traverse. You should expect a rocky ride.
John Eisenberg worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.