INDIANAPOLIS - Rex Ryan was frustrated on the sideline, desperately trying to come up with some sort of plan to slow Peyton Manning.
He never found one.
Ryan’s big-talking, top-ranked defense came up short, and it cost the New York Jets a trip to the Super Bowl in a 30-17 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday.
“We tried everything,” the Jets coach said, shaking his head. “We tried man, tried two-man, zone, you name it, but you’ve got to give him credit, man. He’s one heck of a quarterback and we definitely had some issues there.”
After bottling up Manning for much of the first half, the Jets could no longer contain the four-time MVP quarterback.
“With Peyton Manning, if you can’t disrupt his rhythm, he’s going to kill you,” Ryan said. “And, we couldn’t disrupt him enough.”
It wasn’t the first time the Jets’ defense couldn’t come through. It blew late leads in games against Miami, Jacksonville and Atlanta and earned a reputation for not being able to come up with big stops.
Still, Ryan was confident all week, saying his team would be the most loose AFC championship squad anyone would ever see. It turned out the defense was way too loose against Manning, allowing three scoring passes in a game for the first time this season.
“Once we stopped getting pressure on him, he had time to pick up where he wanted to go with the ball,” safety Kerry Rhodes said. “It doesn’t matter how good your secondary is.”
Now, it’s on to thinking about next year for Ryan, a first-year head coach who got this far with a rookie quarterback in Mark Sanchez. Despite failing to reach the Super Bowl, Ryan realizes the future is bright.
“We’re close,” he said. “We thought we could win it all. We really did.”
Disappointed owner Woody Johnson, visiting the locker room after the game, also was optimistic about next season and beyond.
“They did a great job,” he said. “We just hope next year, we’ll go a little further, one game further, and win the next one.”
Ryan boasted all season that his defense was a force to be reckoned with and deserved its No. 1 ranking. But this time, Ryan – who boldly declared the Jets to be Super Bowl favorites before the playoffs – had to eat his words.
Manning picked apart the Jets’ defense, which also had the top unit against the pass, throwing for 377 yards and three touchdowns. The Colts finished with 461 net yards against a defense that allowed an average of 252 during the regular season.
“We couldn’t get off the field,” Ryan said. “They kept marching it down the field on us.”
Despite their lofty ranking during the regular season, Ryan and the Jets were irritated by suggestions they weren’t a big-time defense.
Their performance Sunday proved why.
“You’ve got to get some stops and we never got enough of them,” Ryan said.
While many worried about how Sanchez would handle himself in a big game, he was the least of the Jets’ worries. He threw two first-half touchdown passes to give the Jets a 17-6 lead and was 30 minutes from becoming the first rookie quarterback to play in the Super Bowl.
Then, the defense – Ryan’s bread and butter – failed to get the Jets to Miami.
“This one stings,” Sanchez said. “It’s hard to swallow.”
When cornerback Donald Strickland was injured late in the first quarter – he thinks it’s a torn groin – the Jets had to adjust by playing guys in spots they weren’t accustomed to. Manning figured that out immediately and the Colts started going with three-receiver sets. He was finding mismatches with Pierre Garon and Austin Collie.
“It’s really tough to match up with them, just with the efficiency that they play with,” safety Jim Leonhard said. “You can have great man coverage, but that ball is right where it needs to be.”
Playmaking linebacker Bart Scott, hobbled by a sprained ankle, wasn’t on the field much, and that compromised the defense.
The clearest sign things were going awry came late in the first half with the Jets leading 17-6. Manning threw three consecutive completions to Collie, including a 16-yard TD with 1:13 remaining to cut the Colts’ deficit to 17-13.
“That really took some of the wind out of our sails,” Ryan said.