It’s amazing how much Mark Sanchez still has to prove.
So far this season, the Jets’ quarterback has orchestrated three straight wins on the final possession. He’s led the team to back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time in eight years, an impressive footnote for a franchise that is 62 games below .500. And he just out-dueled the two greatest quarterbacks of the era in consecutive road playoff games.
Yet for some, it’s still not enough.
If the Jets fall short in Sunday’s AFC championship against the Steelers, you can bet Sanchez will get the bulk of the blame no matter how hard coach Rex Ryan tries to deflect it.
“A lot of times, a guy can think he’s a good competitor, but when you get on the biggest stage, not so much. Mark’s just the opposite,” Ryan said. “He's such a huge competitor, but the bigger the stage, the more he wants to play and the more he looks into it as this is his time to shine. That’s just the way Mark is.”
The way “Mark is,” or the way the Jets choose to portray him to the world?
This season, Sanchez has been a second-tier quarterback, progressing but still not producing the sort of dominating performances that justify Roethlisberger-like praise. His 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions are both average numbers, and his 257-yard passing performance in last year’s AFC championship loss to the Colts is still the only time he’s topped 200 yards in the postseason.
Sanchez followed up the late-game heroic wins over Detroit, Cleveland and Houston with duds. There was the Thanksgiving night game against Cincinnati, where Sanchez fell from the grace of the Texans win with a paltry 57.1 passer rating. Then under the glare of the national spotlight, he threw three interceptions in a humiliating 45-3 loss to New England, a supposed statement game for the Jets where they were supposed to come out from their corners swinging.
Instead, Sanchez walked off the field a punch line. A similar performance this Sunday at Heinz Field and the Jets will once again fall short in their bid to make a Super Bowl for the first time in 42 years. In his rookie year, Sanchez played mistake free football through the playoffs until throwing his first postseason interception in the loss to Indianapolis. His second half performance in that game was marred by sloppy play and the rookie looked rattled.
“You dream of going to the Super Bowl every year and winning every game, that's how you come in as a rookie,” Sanchez said. “Once you understand after your first season what it's really like and how much hard work it takes, the dedication and grind of the season just to make it to the AFC championship game, then, to feel that last year losing, this year it's like, ‘Man, we have such a great opportunity.’ We wouldn't want to feel like that again.”
To avoid that feeling, the Jets brought in veteran quarterback Mark Brunell, an 18-year NFL veteran, to help mentor their young quarterback. At opposite ends of the experience spectrum, Brunell and Sanchez bonded from the very beginning. Before training camp, Brunell dished about arm strength while Sanchez displayed his lead foot during a three-hour drive from North Jersey to upstate New York.
Now, before the biggest game of his career, Brunell says the training wheels are completely off.
“Over the past few weeks, I really think Mark has that rhythm, has found that about his game. It’s something he’s struggled with, it’s something all young quarterbacks struggle with,” Brunell said. “There are ups, there are downs, but right now, I think he’s peaking at the right time.”
At the end of the day, Sanchez has been a glorified game-manager, which has worked just fine for these Jets, as he’s even made big plays against laughable defenses. Sooner or later, though, Sanchez will have to make one huge play against a top-tier defense. And until he does, he’ll remain one huge question mark.
“One day, he won’t be looked at as a weakness of the team, he’ll be a strength,” Ryan said.
That day could be Sunday if Sanchez stuns Pittsburgh’s one true strength — its second-ranked defense.
Three storylines to watch on Sunday
After falling short in the AFC title game last year, Ryan has another chance to exorcise the ghosts of playoffs past and finally lead this franchise to its first Super Bowl appearance in 42 years.
The Jets have been unusually quiet this week, but that doesn’t take away from the momentum of two convincing playoff wins. Rex will need to dial up pressure on Ben Roethlisberger, just like he did last week against Tom?Brady.
“For myself, I’ve been here three years in a row, I don’t know if I can handle not winning it,” Ryan said. “I need to win this game.”
2 A different defense
The Steelers were without All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu in a 22-17 loss to the Jets in Week 15.
The free-ranging Polamalu is as much of a game-changer for Pittsburgh as Darrelle Revis is for the Jets. The man with flowing locks lurks in the shadows, tricking QBs into believing there’s an open window before springing into action. He has seven picks and can deliver a goal-line blast to a back as well.
Former Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes is aware of the presence that Polamalu brings to the game and how he can alter a scheme. “I honestly think Troy Polamalu is probably the greatest player I've ever played with or ever seen play in person. Everybody has their one person they think is the greatest player,” Holmes said. “In my eyes, I think he's the greatest player I've ever played with.”
3 Team effort
The Jets’ special teams and defense will likely have to chip in on the scoreboard, like they did in Week 15, because the Steelers’ D is conceding a ridiculous 14.5 points per game. The Ravens put up just 126 yards of offense against Pittsburgh last weekend after scoring 30 points in their previous game.
“They are who they are. They're about as multiple as it gets on defense and the way they attack you with an outstanding group of pass rushers,” Ryan said. “They know how to play the game. They get after people.”