(Long Island, N.Y.)A year ago, the New York Jets did make it all the way to the AFC Championship Game, but their team had a different look (and feel) to it. Sure, they still like to grind it out and dictate the pace of the game by their running attack, but only 12 short months ago, they really had no other option.
They were playing with only one wide receiver that could stretch the field (and also was prone to bad drops at the most inopportune times) and a rookie quarterback who needed to be reeled in to limit his mistakes. But fast-forward to this season and Braylon Edwards has been sure-handed and Mark Sanchez’s decision making has had a drastic turnaround.
Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes was brought in during the offseason to be paired with Edwards, giving Gang Green two quality wideouts who can change a game in one play. Sanchez has looked quite comfortable throwing to either of them and that has opened up the offense and allowed a revamped backfield to excel, as well.
By leading the Jets to 11 wins in the regular season, Sanchez has matured beyond his years. It is especially impressive when you recall that he had a mere 16 starts under his belt while at USC, so he only now is getting the experience of a four-year starter at the college level, albeit being in the NFL since 2009.
When he brought the Jets down the field with less than a minute remaining in last weekend’s Wild Card game at Indianapolis, he did it with a demeanor that was reminiscent of his counterpart, Peyton Manning. His throws set up an easy game-winning field goal by Nick Folk, and the Jets avenged last season’s playoff loss to the Colts, 17-16.
“I think it speaks to Coach Cavanaugh and Coach Schottenheimer and me growing up in this offense, understanding the personnel we have on the field, what plays fit with specific personnel and just having a couple of plays in the grab bag, just in case,” Sanchez said about the pass play that set up the kick. “They’re emergency plays if the headset goes out, if something goes wrong, we don’t get the call in quite right, you can make something up and kind of go on the fly.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do that last year,” he added. “Just doing all the studying in the offseason and getting comfortable with Jerricho (Cotchery), Santonio and Braylon. Kind of what happens is you grow up in this league (when) you play more games.”
Now Sanchez must face the New England Patriots on Sunday, a team that beat the Jets 45-3 in Week 13. Just as with the Colts, this will be no easy task and in fact be much greater. But the growth of Sanchez is not lost on anyone, even someone as stoic and bland as Bill Belichick.
“He’s done a great job this year,” the Patriots head coach said this week via conference call. “There have been a lot of close games and (he has) brought them from behind, like in the Detroit game and the overtime games. (In) Cleveland, he made a bunch of big plays there. He’s done an excellent job in some tough situations and brought the team back and won for them. I think anytime a quarterback does that, that’s what you want on your resume.”
If Sanchez can pull out a victory at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon, then he will have a huge addition to his resume.