Mark Sanchez and Peyton Manning won't go one-on-one Saturday night in Indianapolis. But both the Jets and the Colts are going to need solid if not stellar efforts from their signalcallers to advance to the AFC Divisional Round.
The 24-year-old Sanchez, who says his sore right shoulder is feeling good, loves the big-game atmosphere. He completed 60.3 percent of his passes in the 2009 postseason, throwing for 539 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions before the Green & White fell to the Colts at the Luke in the AFC Championship Game.
"It's a different feel. You can't really describe it," Sanchez said today of the Dance. "It's just bigger, it's faster, you can feel the intensity, you just feel what's riding on the game. You don't want your season to be over. You want to play again and we want to play again next week."
The 34-year-old Manning is a January regular who will make his 19th postseason start after leading the Colts back from 6-6 to their ninth consecutive playoff berth.
"We feel very fortunate to be playing this week," said Manning during a conference call. "There are teams that are not playing and we feel lucky and fortunate to be in the playoffs, especially considering the season that we've had, a kind of up-and-down season, and some of the injuries that we've had."
Sanchez had a good sophomore campaign, passing for 3,291 yards with 17 TDs and 13 INTs while leading the Green & White to 11 wins. He played well last January in Indy (17-of-30, 257 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) when the Jets tasted defeat, but he'll expect more from himself in this second playoff game against the Horseshoes.
"I feel light-years ahead of where I was last year just mentally, knowing the schedule, understanding what a playoff game feels like, anticipating that kind of energy that you got from their crowd and how you have to be loud at the line of scrimmage," he said. "Little things that I had to experience first to understand now — I just feel a lot better. It's a great opportunity for us and I'll have a better feel for it."
An all-time great, Manning completed 66.3 percent of his tosses in the regular season for 4,700 yards with 33 TDs and 17 INTs. The Jets had no answers for No. 18 when he got hot in the conference championship, manufacturing a 24-point run and finishing 26-of-39 for 377 yards with three TDs.
But despite experiencing some success against Rex Ryan-led defenses throughout his career, Manning believes the NFL's third-ranked defense in the regular season — bolstered by the acquisitions of CB Antonio Cromartie, OLB Jason Taylor, DL Trevor Pryce and S Brodney Pool — will present a tremendous challenge.
"It is an extremely difficult scheme," Manning said, "and every time we've played him, he's always had good players, but I'm not sure he's had as good as players as he has now."
You can say the same for Sanchez, now brimming with confidence. It seems like a lifetime ago that Ryan considered pulling No. 6 in the second half of an ugly Week 14 loss to the Dolphins. He rebounded from that in fine fashion, completing 65 percent of his passes against the Steelers and the Bears while consistently moving his team down the field.
"We're just in a good place. I'm getting the ball out of my hand quickly, I'm making pretty good decisions with the football when it's in my hands. I'm stepping up in the pocket well with two hands on the ball, little things that we've worked on and overworked last week," he said. "Just the fundamentals and it's all starting to come together for our offense. We're kind of hitting things in stride and that's what you what going in to the playoffs."
While the Jets added LaDainian Tomlinson and Santonio Holmes to Sanchez's arsenal, Manning has had to adjust to the in-season losses of some of his most trusted targets in Dallas Clark, Austin Collie and Anthony Gonzalez.
"Pierre Garcon is very much still a young player. It's just his second year being a starter. He's been injured some this year so he and I continue to work," said the Maestro. "And certainly when you add new guys like [TE Jacob)] Tamme and Blair White, it's a cram session to try to get on the same page with them, working with them in practice and after practice.
"I do think you have to sort of gain repetitions together in order to grow together, in order to improve that timing. We've had some games that have helped us improve, but we are still continuing to learn together and grow together. It just takes time, I think."
Sanchez and the Jets clearly believe that their time is now. A couple of hours after Manning said the Colts felt "lucky" to be in the playoffs, Sanchez hinted that their good fortune was about to run out.
"It's going to be another fight," Sanchez said. "It's a great team. I think we match up well against them but it's going to take our best effort. They're one of the best teams around, they always are. It's going to be a good challenge for us and we'll be ready for it."