- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- So now they are building monuments for Ben Roethlisberger, the two-time champ who had acted like a two-bit punk before Roger Goodell hit him from the blind side. In a society that often confuses victory with virtue, Big Ben is back in all of his improvisational glory, running and gunning and drawing up winning plays in the postseason dirt.
The AFC Championship Game needs its outsized star, and Roethlisberger fits the bill. His suspension long behind him, his eyes locked firmly on a third Super Bowl title, Big Ben towers over his counterpart, Mark Sanchez, who listens as his head coach and teammates throw roses at Roethlisberger's feet.
Sanchez is the luckiest unlucky guy on the face of the earth. He has the looks, the talent and the requisite charisma to play Joe Namath's spot. In only his second season with the New York Jets, he also has a chance to become the first quarterback in franchise history to win five road playoff games.
But Sanchez hasn't been paired opposite any Matt Cassels in this tournament. First it was Peyton Manning, then Tom Brady, now the action figure known as Big Ben. Champions and future Hall of Famers all, reducing Rex Ryan's quarterback to something of a pregame prop.
"Mark hasn't expressed at all that he is upset or bitter about that stuff," said his 40-year-old backup, Mark Brunell. "He never brought it up. He doesn't get distracted by who's the quarterback on the other side of the ball, which is another sign of maturity."
So is the way Sanchez has carried himself while knocking off the living legends one by one. A little more than four years ago, on the eve of the first round of the baseball playoffs at Yankee Stadium, Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland described the home team's overstuffed lineup as "Murderers' Row and then Cano" before plowing through the Yanks in four games.
Sanchez is doing now what Leyland's Tigers did then. He's embracing the role of respectful underdog before laying waste to the heavyweights in his path.
"That kind of stuff is maybe something you'll tell your grandkids about, [that] we were playing against a great quarterback," Sanchez said. "But for now these wins are for us. It's for the Jets and Rex and I and everybody on the team.
"We're all 4-1, or whatever we are in the playoffs. We all beat the Indianapolis Colts, not just Peyton Manning and not just Tom Brady and the Patriots. ... As a franchise, we beat them."
But every franchise needs a franchise player, and the Jets got theirs with a stroke of midnight madness. On a late-night phone call, Ryan had to basically trick safety Abe Elam into signing a waiver (long story) to circumvent a quirky league rule and allow Elam to go in the trade to Cleveland that landed Sanchez in New York on draft day.
Of course, USC coach Pete Carroll had already weighed in with his belief that his early-exiting quarterback wasn't ready for the NFL. Ready or not, Sanchez was the Week 1 starter in a job he might not relinquish for another 10 or 12 years.
"The kid is only going to get better," Brunell said. "He'll be one of the premier quarterbacks in the league for a long time."
He's already one of the premier quarterbacks in the league, at least in this postseason. Sanchez completed 60.7 percent of his passes in the two playoff victories after completing just 54.8 percent during the regular season. His rating of 91.6 is 16.3 points higher than his regular season sum.
"He's saved his best football for now," Brunell said. "And the reason why? I think he's grown up. ... Ultimately if the quarterback doesn't play well in the postseason, you don't win, and Mark understands that."
Sanchez's teammates adore him, Brunell said. Love his work ethic and willingness to lead.
And Sanchez takes nothing more seriously than the need to be accountable. "You're the quarterback of a multimillion-dollar franchise," he said. "You're the face. You're the guy. And you need to wear it and own it and be it at all times."
Much like the Peytons and Bradys before him, Sanchez has taken a robo-approach to his preparation. On Friday nights he puts out his suit and tie for the following day's road trip. He stuffs his socks in one shoe and his belt in the other. He knows where he's going to eat, which teammates he's going to eat with, and who is going to serve their food.
Saturdays are no different from Fridays. Sanchez is a creature of habit, and he desperately wants January and February winning to be part of his routine.
"You dream of going to the Super Bowl every year and winning every game," he said, "and that's just the way you come in as a rookie. But once you understand after your first season what it's really like, how much work it takes, the dedication, the grind of the season just to make the AFC Championship Game, and 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."
In stressful moments, Ryan keeps advising Sanchez to be himself, and the quarterback keeps listening. It was all about Manning and Brady in Rounds 1 and 2, when a humble Sanchez found his own low-decibel ways to beat them.
Now the Jets are calling Roethlisberger a genetic freak, an agile polar bear, and an athletic gamer whose toughness puts Manning's and Brady's to shame.
Quietly, steadily, Sanchez absorbs it all without blinking. Forty-two years after Namath's immortal pledge, the kid won't guarantee anything other than an honest and fearless attempt to be the best quarterback on Big Ben's field.
Mark Sanchez will attempt to be the best quarterback on Big Ben's field.