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AFC Notebook

A swan song for Taylor?

Jets veteran LB avoids questions on his future

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / January 24, 2011

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PITTSBURGH — He was dressed impeccably, as you would expect, but to look at Jason Taylor, he seemed a mess.

The veteran appeared to be holding back tears after his Jets were beaten, 24-19, in last night’s AFC Championship game by the Steelers. The linebacker was hit hard by the reality that after working 14 years for his first chance to play in the Super Bowl, he fell short, done in in part by a poor performance by New York’s defense in the first half.

“Obviously, it was a very exciting year, a fantastic experience being in New York, playing with these guys,’’ Taylor said softly. “This is the toughest loss I’ve ever been part of.’’

A longtime nemesis of Patriots Tom Brady and Matt Light — though off the field he and Brady are friends — Taylor was playing in a conference championship game for the first time.

Though he brushed off a question about his playing future, he indicated he’d be back if coach Rex Ryan and general manager Mike Tannenbaum would have him. Taylor’s emotional reaction led some to believe that perhaps he had played his last game.

But to get so close to the Super Bowl and be on the losing side was tough to deal with.

“It was so close — so close you could see it, you could smell it,’’ Taylor said.

Though he has played so long, Taylor called his first year with the Jets — a team he openly despised when he was with the Dolphins — the most fun he’s had in football.

He pointed the finger at himself, saying his play wasn’t up to his standards. He may not be the playmaker he was a few years ago, Taylor said, but he still prides himself on making the big play when his team needs it.

In the first two quarters, he wasn’t the only Jet underachieving.

“I wouldn’t go back and change anything,’’ he said. “We had a good week of practice . . . I wouldn’t go back and change anything besides making tackles in the first half.’’

Hairy situation Playoff beards are nothing new. Players, coaches, and others grow them, vowing not to shave until the season is over.

But Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel began growing his beard after Pittsburgh’s minicamp in late spring, and now, months later, it is a bushy sight to behold.

While Keisel talked with reporters about his beard, Ben Roethlisberger walked by and quipped, “The worst thing about winning is you have to keep that beard.’’

Keisel’s wife feels the same way — he joked that she was in the stands cheering that the Steelers were winning, but at the same time cursing since it meant she had to live with the beard for two more weeks.

The worst part of having a face covered in hair?

“I feel like a cat coughing up hairballs, but it’s all worth it,’’ Keisel said, smiling.

Pouncey injured The Steelers’ offensive line has been a makeshift unit all year. Starting right tackle Willie Colon was placed on injured reserve during training camp and left tackle Max Starks was lost for the season in early November.

But rookie center Maurkice Pouncey, Pittsburgh’s first-round draft pick out of Florida, was a mainstay, starting every game and earning a Pro Bowl berth.

In last night’s game, however, he became the latest Pittsburgh lineman felled by injury.

Fourteen plays into the Steelers’ game-opening, 15-play touchdown drive, Pouncey’s left leg was rolled on from behind by a defender. He was tended to on the field for several minutes before limping to the sideline, putting no pressure on the lower leg.

He was taken to the locker room on a cart and it was announced he had an ankle injury. Pouncey was not able to return to the game and later was shown on crutches.

Doug Legursky took over at center. There was a fumbled exchange between Legursky and Roethlisberger in the third quarter, but Roethlisberger was able to fall on the ball.

But in the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger had trouble handling a low snap, which helped the Jets tackle him for a safety.

Pouncey said he had a high ankle sprain, but expects to be ready for the Super Bowl.

“I know how to attack it. I know how to approach things. I know in my heart I’m playing in that game,’’ he said.

Smith out again Pittsburgh once again played without veteran defensive end Aaron Smith, who was inactive. Smith tore his left triceps against Miami in October, but the Steelers kept him on the roster on the chance he could return at some point — even though a torn triceps can take six months to fully recover from.

The 12-year veteran practiced this past week, though on a limited basis, and was listed as doubtful for the game. Team doctors had planned on putting Smith’s arm through a series of tests before the game to see if he would be able to play.

Steelers safety Ryan Clark called it a sign of respect that coach Mike Tomlin didn’t place Smith on injured reserve, leaving the door open for him to come back.

“You don’t do that for just anybody, you do it for a leader,’’ Clark said. “He’s earned that. You don’t do that for a young guy because they haven’t earned that right. Aaron Smith has earned the right to be waited upon.’’

Smith, 34, missed most of last season with a torn rotator cuff.

What a rush Only one player rushed for 100 yards against the Jets this season, Chicago’s Matt Forte gaining 113 in Week 16. But the Steelers’ Rashard Mendenhall had 121 yards on 27 carries last night.

Pittsburgh had 135 first-half rushing yards to just 1 yard for the Jets.

In the regular season, New York had the third-ranked run defense in the NFL; the Steelers were tops.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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