Mark Sanchez, best QB on the field
Jets' pilot showed more poise than MVP favorite Tom Brady on way to AFC title game
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The old firefighter in the New York Jets jacket was sending the cell calls to his voice mail, the calls out of the Orange County Fire Authority, Station 6, from men desperately trying to tell Nick Sanchez how proud they were of his boy.
"Pseudo dads," Sanchez proudly called his fellow firefighters as he stood outside the visitors' locker room at Gillette Stadium, the winning locker room, trying to make sense of Mark's athletic journey into manhood.
"Just yesterday he was playing Little League baseball and Pop Warner football," Nick Sanchez said of his son. "It's just a blink away from those days."
A blink away from the memory of Mark hitting childhood homers over 185-foot fences to the surreal sight of him in full pads Sunday night, when Nick Sanchez's own flesh and blood was the most poised and precise quarterback on Tom Brady's field.[+] EnlargeAl Bello/Getty ImagesTom Brady heads home while Mark Sanchez takes the ball and bolts for the AFC title game.
A week after he defeated Peyton Manning at his place, Sanchez defeated Tom Brady at his. Never mind that Manning and Brady could go down as the two greatest quarterbacks of them all, or certainly two of the top five, anyway.
This 28-21 second-round playoff victory over the New England Patriots wasn't about the opposing quarterback, Brady, and the stunning scenes of him panicking in the pocket, jumping around as if he were barefoot on a bed of hot coals, and looking more unnerved than he did when the Giants buzzed him in Super Bowl XLII.
No, this was about the winner, not the loser. Sanchez had thrown seven interceptions over his two previous trips to Foxborough, the last trip ending in complete disgrace, and yet there he was making himself at home in Brady's living room Sunday, so comfortable he might as well have raided the cover boy's fridge.
Brady was sacked five times, the same five times he was sacked by the Giants in the Arizona desert, and he threw the interception to David Harris on the first Patriots drive that ensured there would be no 45-3 beating this time around. Sanchez? He wasn't intercepted or sacked once, and he threw three touchdown passes to Brady's two.
"His swag was speaking for him," Braylon Edwards said of Sanchez. "His body language spoke for us and let us know that he was confident, that he was sure he was going to get us in the right situation and that he's going to make plays, and we just rolled with that."
The Jets rolled into their second straight AFC title game, leaving Sanchez with four postseason victories, double the sum of any Jets quarterback before him, all four on the road.
"He beat Peyton head-to-head, and he beat Brady head-to-head," Edwards said. "Last year he beat Philip Rivers and Carson Palmer. People want to talk about Mark as him being a weak link at one point, but when we get in critical situations, he's beaten everybody."
He has to beat Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh to send the Jets to their first Super Bowl appearance in 42 years, and then he'll likely have to beat Aaron Rodgers to match Joe Willie Namath's title, sans the guarantee.
Rex Ryan will take care of that one, of course.
Ryan outcoached Bill Belichick as thoroughly as Belichick had outcoached him last month, despite Rex's humble (yes, humble) claim to the contrary. New England's clock management was dreadful, and Belichick made an amateur-hour blunder near the end of the first half with a fake punt that only cost the Patriots their season.
Four plays later, Sanchez found Edwards for a 15-yard score with 33 seconds left to give the Jets a 14-3 lead and to compel the home fans to boo the Brady bunch off the field.
When the Patriots decided to make a game of it on an 80-yard touchdown drive at the end of the third quarter, Sanchez made a personal stand that belied his age (24) and experience (not much).
He knew he needed to answer Brady's drive, and so on the very first play of the fourth quarter he found Jerricho Cotchery for a 58-yard gain to the New England 13. On third-and-4, with the Patriots needing to hold the Jets to a field goal, Sanchez delivered what Edwards would call "maybe his best throw of the season."
The throw went to Santonio Holmes in the corner of the end zone, and Holmes made the kind of catch he made to win Super Bowl XLIII for the team he'll face next week.
"It's the best feeling in the world to know that you're the triggerman," Sanchez said. "You're the guy they're counting on to make a play, and I'm proud to be that guy for them."
Sanchez was that guy all game. He was blitzed on 40 percent of his drop-backs and went 6-for-10 for 108 yards, two touchdowns and a 136.7 passer rating on those plays, according to ESPN's Stats & Information.
The numbers defined his even temperament under fire. While Brady projected a vibe of indecision, even fear, Sanchez was a living study in strong body language.
"Your attitude and body language, that stuff can spread throughout an entire team, good and bad, positive and negative," Sanchez said. "It's important to stay up the entire game."
Especially in one this intense. Ryan had challenged Belichick and Antonio Cromartie had called Brady profane names on one side, and Wes Welker had mocked the Ryan family's foot-fetish fiasco on the other.
During pregame warm-ups, when the images of Ryan and Cromartie on the video board drew resounding boos, Brady came out hopping and clapping to Jay-Z music and pumping his fist to the fans.
Sanchez wanted no part of the spectacle. "We treated them with respect all week," he said of the Patriots. "At least I did with my comments."
So it was fitting that Sanchez declared himself -- with his actions -- as the best player on the field. In the second quarter, Sanchez escaped the rush by sliding to his left, pointed for Edwards to run a deeper route near the sideline, and fired a strike that was good for 37 yards to the New England 8, setting up LaDainian Tomlinson's touchdown catch.
"They can make a quarterback look great," Sanchez said of his receivers.
The winning quarterback didn't need much help. Hours after the college coach who doubted him, Pete Carroll, was eliminated from the playoffs, Sanchez sent Brady off to see as many Broadway plays as he likes.
Outside the Jets' locker room, Sanchez's father was asked about his son's ability to beat Manning and Brady with a sore shoulder. Nick Sanchez paused, lowered his head, and fought back the emotion of the moment.
"He's a tough kid," the firefighter said.
A tough man, too.
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