Is Mark Sanchez ready? He better be
As if dueling Tom Brady isn't enough, Jets QB must try to appease long-suffering fans
A week's worth of locker room conversation -- some of it not fit for family consumption -- can complicate a simple second-round playoff game. But no matter who said what about whom, two inalienable truths define the AFC East opponents scheduled to settle a lot more than a division crown.
The New York Jets do not.
The entire sport revolves around the quarterback position, which is why the Patriots are heavily favored Sunday to shut the Jets' big, fat and foul mouths. Mark Sanchez is a lot of things -- young, restless, gifted, confident and 3-1 as a postseason pitcher -- but Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. he is not.
This is a problem for the beaten-down lot known as Jets fans. Sanchez isn't supposed to be ready for this kind of challenge. It's his second year in the league, for goodness' sake, after starting only one season of college ball at USC.[+] EnlargeJared Wickerham/Getty ImagesMark Sanchez already has four playoff victories during his time with the Jets.
Sure, Sanchez made it to the AFC title game as a rookie, defying Pete Carroll's vile, self-serving prophecy along the way, but he beat a lousy Bengals team in Round 1 and a Norv Turner-coached team in Round 2. Sanchez eliminated Peyton Manning in his own building last week, but the Colts weren't what they used to be and the winning quarterback wasn't what he wanted to be.
Even Sanchez's signature play -- his called pass to Braylon Edwards to set up the season-saving field goal -- said more about the Jet who caught it than the Jet who threw it. "It wasn't the best throw in the world to Braylon," Sanchez said, "and I'm not afraid to admit that."
It was good enough to advance to Foxborough, Mass., and this is where that long-suffering fan base comes in. The men, women and children who root for the Jets are often the same men, women and children who root for the New York Mets.
It's a geographical thing, a Long Island and Queens thing. The wrecking ball that tore through Shea Stadium didn't shatter that bond between the co-tenants that were Joe Willie's Jets and Tom Seaver's Mets.
But Mets fans of a certain age don't have to live on the fumes of 1969, not after their team delivered an indelible championship run in 1986. Jets fans? They don't have a 1986.
Their team hasn't even appeared in a Super Bowl, never mind won one, since Joe Namath made a guarantee more spontaneous than the dozens issued by Rex Ryan.
So they don't want to wait for Sanchez to grow up. They don't want to hear about his sore right shoulder. They don't want to hang in there while the quarterback goes through his natural progression, takes his requisite postseason lumps and emerges in a couple of years ready to win it all.
They want Sanchez to beat Brady right now. They need Sanchez to beat Brady right now.
"I think it's bigger than just me," Sanchez said. "It's about our entire team."
Only in a game like this, the quarterback is the entire team.
A three-time champion and mortal Hall of Fame lock, Brady threw 36 touchdown passes against four interceptions in leading his Patriots to a 14-2 record. Sanchez threw 17 touchdown passes against 13 interceptions in leading his Jets to an 11-5 record.
The numbers suggest that this isn't a fair fight, that Brady isn't about to lose in Foxborough, where Sanchez has thrown seven interceptions in two career starts.
But Sanchez does own a pair of home victories over Brady, and he does have an established talent for presiding over dramatic fourth-quarter drives.
"Only special guys have that kind of characteristic," Ryan said. "I think he's got that competitiveness. You never think you're out of a game with Mark as your quarterback.
"You would say the same thing about Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and some of these great quarterbacks. I think Mark has that characteristic. I'm not putting him in that class right now, but time will tell. I think eventually he'll belong in that group."
Eventually. The Jets and their fans don't have time for eventually.
The Patriots defeated the Jets by a 45-3 count last month, so eventually is the most likely Sunday forecast. "The perfect storm," Sanchez called that Monday night game, and in its wake it appeared his team would never recover.
But the Jets did make it in one piece to Indianapolis, where Edwards and Santonio Holmes found themselves comforting a wayward Sanchez in the first half.
"You're good. You're fine," they told him. "We're going to hit our rhythm. We're going to hit our stride."
Encouraged by the fact his veteran receivers didn't quit on him, Sanchez hit his stride before it was too late, showing an advanced maturity and resolve.
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"He's gone leaps and bounds from where he was before," said Nick Mangold, who described a quarterback whose voice has expanded as his confidence has grown.
"He's gotten much more forceful in the things he says," Mangold said.
But the films and the stat sheets don't lie, and Sanchez's offense hasn't scored a first-quarter touchdown since Oct. 3, three days before the Yankees opened their division series against the Twins.
The Jets can't afford a slow start against the Patriots, and Sanchez can't afford to force throws into perilous places in a desperate game of catch-up. "Mark has to know if something breaks down," offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said, "it's better to pull it down and run or throw it away."
Can Sanchez play with the necessary precision and poise? Only two years into his Jets career, can he actually go into Brady's backyard and take an unscheduled leap into full-fledged NFL manhood?
Thursday, Edwards was matter-of-factly answering questions on his symbiotic bond with Holmes when he went Jekyll and Hyde again and declined to field a query on his quarterback's development.
"I'm through with the Mark growth questions," Edwards said. "He'll answer those Sunday."
Millions of men, women and children wearing their game-day green are through with the Mark growth questions, too. If Sanchez does answer them Sunday, he'll be answering a battered fan base's prayers.
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