Mark Sanchez will appear in the most significant regular-season game of his professional career Monday night and Jets Nation has reason to feel confident that he is going to shine before the nation in primetime against the Patriots.
"Even when he was in college, he played best in the biggest games," said head coach Rex Ryan of No. 6. "This is as big as it gets in the regular season. We can say it's not and it's just another game. Oh, really? We'll take the win, you take the loss and we'll see how you feel about that. This is a huge game in the regular season and he's always performed well in those types of games."
It's been almost two years now since Sanchez turned in one of the finest efforts in Rose Bowl history. Making his last collegiate start at USC, on Jan. 1, 2009, in Pasadena, Calif., Sanchez passed for 413 yards and four touchdowns as he led the Trojans to a 38-24 win over Penn State. His 80 percent (28-for-35) passing accuracy set a Rose Bowl record and he even scored on a 6-yard keeper.
But how would Sanchez, after starting 15 games as a rookie, respond to the NFL postseason? Joe Paterno's Nittany Lions were one thing, but wild-card weekend brought about a different animal — the Bengals — and a game-time temperature of 21 degrees with a wind chill of 9 for the Southern California youngster. He responded warmly, playing mistake-free and completing 80 percent of his passes again as the Green & White began the postseason with a 24-14 triumph.
"The big-time players want to play their best on the biggest stage," Sanchez said this past week. "That's always been important, that's always been the way, just growing up and playing for Coach [Bob] Johnson [at Mission Viejo High School], Coach [Pete] Carroll [at USC], and now Coach Ryan. Those are the most important ones."
After turning in another solid effort in the Jets' divisional win at San Diego, Sanchez didn't blink in the AFC Championship Game in Indianapolis. He put a scare into Peyton Manning and company as the visitors raced out to a 17-6 lead before succumbing in the second half, but not before the then bearded rook turned in a 257-yard, two-TD performance.
"I started becoming the quarterback this team needs and I started making the decisions that a quarterback who makes it to the AFC Championship Game makes," said the signalcaller, who threw for 539 yards, four TDs and two INTs in the playoffs. "I still have a long way to go. I haven't arrived, I haven't figured it out and I haven't made it."
And now 11 games into his second regular season, a fresh-faced Sanchez and the Jets will test Tom Brady and the Patriots in New England. The 24-year-old is a much better player than he was last year at this time. Forget the 2-to-1 TDs-to-INTs ratio and just insert the tape. He has remained poised at critical moments, made better decisions, displayed more confidence in the pocket and added some nifty footwork. The kid's got moxie, and his teammates see it and they believe in him.
"He understands that 'I'm young, but I'm the guy. I don't want to use this young excuse anymore. It's over and done with. I'm young, but I'm the leader of this offense and this team and so I have to make the situation mine.' And he's done that this year," explained WR Braylon Edwards. "That's why we've been that much better down the stretch of games, in the fourth quarter and overtime, because he realizes he's the guy. He's the guy who has to lead us to the end zone and lead us to the locker room with the victory."
As far as QB/head coach combinations in football, Brady and Bill Belichick are the gold standard. Since Brady took over for Drew Bledsoe in 2001, the Patriots have won three world championships, appeared in the Super Bowl four times and claimed seven division titles. But Sanchez and Ryan, who advanced further than the Pats in their rookie seasons and are 2-1 head-to-head against the legendary combination, are intent on shifting the power structure.
"We want to stay together for that long, and it helps that they kind of set the standard for their own team and their own franchise. That's the way Rex talked about us, being together for 10 years. The day I was drafted, he said that," said Sanchez, selected No. 5 overall in 2009. "That's going to take him coaching really well and me playing really well, and neither of us getting the other run out of here. They set the standard for their organization. We're doing it for ours, but we have a long way to go. They've been pretty good together for a long time and we're just starting."
But it's been a hell of a start. Both men relish the moment at hand and Sanchez can only enhance his PTP (Prime Time Performer) status against a Patriots defense that has struggled this season.
"I don't know what it is," he said. "It just seems like the guys who are remembered for a long time, the guys that have gone down in the record books as the players who seem to be the best, play best when it counts."