Mark Sanchez may play vs. Bills
CHICAGO -- Essentially, Rex Ryan's decision comes down to this: sore shoulder versus hot arm.
One day after saying he planned to rest quarterback Mark Sanchez in the final regular-season game, the coach of the playoff-bound New York Jets did an about-face Monday, indicating he may start Sanchez against the Buffalo Bills.
"Now, obviously, his health is the No. 1 concern," Ryan said on a conference call from Chicago, where the Jets were stranded Monday because of the snowstorm in the Northeast. "It's kind of a fine line because he's hot right now. We can't afford for him to take a dip. We need him to stay at this level. ...That's what I'm weighing right now."
As soon as he learned the Jets (10-5) had clinched a wild-card berth -- minutes after a 38-34 loss to the Chicago Bears -- Ryan strongly indicated his plan was to rest Sanchez, who admitted after the game his right shoulder was "pretty sore." But after sleeping on it, Ryan expressed concern about disrupting Sanchez's mojo.
Though he didn't mention it as a factor, Ryan probably is cognizant of Sanchez's track record for struggling after down time. Three of his worst outings this season came after 11-, 14- and 11-day layoffs. Against the Baltimore Ravens, Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots, respectively, he completed only 47 percent of his passes and threw five interceptions with no touchdowns.
Ryan seemed to be leaning toward a middle ground, giving Sanchez an abbreviated start against the Bills.
"That's definitely a thought," Ryan said.
This is a rare situation for the Jets.
The last time they clinched a playoff spot before the final week was in 1998, when they finished 12-4 and won the AFC East under Bill Parcells. In that case, Parcells played his stars in the final game, beating up the Patriots. The Jets had nothing to gain -- they already had secured a first-round bye -- but Parcells said anyone who questioned his strategy was "clueless."
Of course, Parcells didn't have a quarterback with a sore shoulder.
Sanchez hurt his right shoulder the previous week in Pittsburgh, an MRI exam revealing damaged cartilage from pre-existing wear and tear, according to sources.
Nevertheless, he played well against two very good defenses, showing improved accuracy against the Steelers and Bears -- 65 percent. He threw only one interception in those games, albeit a killer in the final minute in Chicago.
Sanchez is in "such a groove," according to Ryan, but the last thing the coach wants to do is imperil his playoff chances by exposing his quarterback to further injury. In terms of his shoulder condition, Sanchez emerged "fairly well" from the Chicago game, Ryan said.
After the game, Sanchez expressed mixed feelings about sitting the final game. He admitted that, with his relative lack of experience, he "needs as many reps as possible." But he also said he trusted Ryan to make the best decision for him and the team.
If Sanchez sits, Mark Brunell, 40, would make his first start since last season's finale, a mop-up assignment for the New Orleans Saints. They rested Drew Brees in preparation for the playoffs, and wound up winning the Super Bowl.
On paper, the Jets have little to gain by beating the Bills. They are locked into the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoffs. Right now, they're looking at a wild-card game in Kansas City, the AFC West champ. There's an outside chance that the Colts could jump up to the third seed and host the Jets in a rematch of last year's AFC championship.
Considering the struggles of their defense, the Jets might be better off avoiding Peyton Manning, who shredded them in the title game. Ryan admitted it's "kind of a tough" decision. He conceded his first notion was to not play Sanchez, but he backtracked, saying he wants to win and become only the sixth team in Jets history to post 11 wins.
"It's important to go into the playoffs confident," running back LaDainian Tomlinson said. "When you're on the road ... you have to have momentum. No matter what you say or who you are -- No. 1 seed or No. 6 seed -- everyone is nervous about going home because there's the potential of losing. There are no undefeated teams this year, so ... it's important to have momentum. For us, it's very important."
Wide receiver Braylon Edwards, commenting after the game -- when it appeared Sanchez was going to sit -- was in favor of the move.
"Mark needs to heal his shoulder," Edwards said. "He needs a break, so we need to give him a break."
Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com.
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