CINCINNATI – When it was all over, the message in the New York Jets locker room had a distinct, synchronized harmony. Cornerback Darrelle Revis(notes) was preaching in one corner. Safety Kerry Rhodes(notes) was lecturing in another. Somewhere in the middle, linebacker Bart Scott(notes) was practically holding a state of the union address.
But all talking points intersected at one stop: After Saturday's 24-14 road win over Cincinnati, the Jets are finished trying to make a point to the rest of the league. Which is ironic, considering rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez(notes) may have just made his most compelling statement of the season. Not only did Sanchez become the fourth rookie quarterback to win a playoff game, he did it while simultaneously dispelling the myth that he had to be a manager – and not a trigger – of the Jets offense.
''One of these days,'' said beaming Jets coach Rex Ryan, ''he's gonna be the biggest thing we've got on this football team – the best thing we've got. Hey, maybe that day is coming sooner than later.''
Indeed, you could argue that point came Saturday, in Sanchez's playoff debut, when he not only completed 12 of 15 passes for 182 yards and a touchdown, but he ran the offense with a calm and collected confidence that belied his 23 years. Despite a raucous crowd and biting cold, Sanchez never looked rattled, never came close to turning the ball over, and would have had even better numbers if wideout Braylon Edwards(notes) hadn't dropped a pristine, perfectly spiraled 41-yard touchdown in the first quarter. A score that would have knotted the game 7-7.
But after punting on that series, the Jets and Sanchez shook off the lost opportunity, held Cincinnati on the next drive, and came right back and scored their first touchdown on a 39-yard run by rookie running back Shonn Greene(notes). That was the tip of a 21-0 run in a superbly balanced and executed plan by offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.
Ultimately, it put the Jets in command and allowed an opportunistic defense to keep the Bengals from building any consistent momentum.
And while the defense deserves credit for keeping Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer(notes) off balance all afternoon, this one should be remembered for Sanchez. Saturday proved what we've seen all season long from him: when he struggles, as he did in the middle of the season, the Jets are profoundly vulnerable, if not average. But when he is both efficient and authoritative, as he was Saturday, he makes New York exponentially more difficult to beat.
Particularly when the running game produces, as it did with 171 yards against Cincinnati.
"When they throw the ball on play action, you aren't going to get much pressure in three steps,'' said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. ''We knocked some balls down at the line, though. I thought, for [the last] two football games, [Sanchez] played very poised. He didn't turn the ball over. And he didn't throw into coverage. He has done a nice job. They have done a nice job directing him.''
Clearly, the Jets have begun cracking the playbook a bit wider for Sanchez, which is an accomplishment in itself, after Schottenheimer actually pulled back on inserting more complex packages when the quarterback went through a stretch of nine turnovers in three games. While alarmists thought the struggles were a larger sign that Sanchez wasn't ready to shoulder the offense, the Jets assumed it was merely the growing pains that come with young NFL quarterbacks. And Sanchez has had his fair share of those, sputtering when reliable wideout Jerricho Cotchery(notes) went down for nearly three games with an injury, and staring down newly acquired wideout Braylon Edwards too often.
The response by the Jets was to dial back Sanchez's pass attempts, while engineering practices that concentrated on repetition in high percentage situations. One of which could be seen in the second quarter, when Sanchez moved to his left in play action, then pivoted to roll right on a naked bootleg, finding tight end Dustin Keller(notes) dragging across the field wide open for an eventual 45-yard touchdown. The Jets practiced that play repeatedly over the course of the week, and when they found themselves in a third-and-12 scenario, they pulled it out.
''This one was one of those things where it looked good all week and then we hit it,'' Ryan said. ''… [Sanchez] was on fire. There is no doubt about it. The thing that I was most impressed with was just that confidence he had. He wanted this game in the worst way. He felt confident. He felt comfortable.''
Amazingly, Sanchez admitted during timeouts that he actually managed to step back and soak in the atmosphere at various points, realizing the grandiose nature of the NFL's postseason.
''You just take a look at the stadium and you hear the Bengal thing roaring,'' Sanchez said. ''You can hear the fans screaming at you. You can see the guys on the sideline getting animated. You think, 'Wow, the entire country is watching this. And I get to say go? I get to say 'hut'? They don't do anything until I say 'hut'?' That's crazy. It blows your mind. It's unbelievable.''
Considering the awe most rookies go through in their first playoff game, it was a statement that reflected a remarkable grasp and appreciation. Maybe even poise. And he'll need that next week, as the Jets are looking at facing one of two high-powered offenses on the road, in either the San Diego Chargers or Indianapolis Colts. Games in which Sanchez will likely have to throw to win, and a possible rematch of the infamous week 16 game in which the Colts pulled their starters in what eventually became a 29-15 Jets win.
And while the offense is sure to expand for that game, and more responsibility is bound to be laid at Sanchez's feet, his depth of knowledge may now contain the most important things for a quarterback – what not to do.
''I know what gets us beat and that's turnovers,'' Sanchez said. ''That's been the story for our season.''
Now the story takes another step forward, with Ryan and his wealth of confidence no doubt buoyed by his first playoff win as a head coach. The peaks and valleys have brought the Jets to the second round of the playoffs, and galvanized their belief that they are just as worthy a Super Bowl contender as anyone.
''People can think we backed in [to the postseason] or whatever,'' Ryan said. ''I don't care how we got in. I'm just telling you: we are going to be a tough out. … This was just the first step in what we think is gonna be a great journey.''