That’s how pivotal, and necessary, Sanchez’s macho performance was on a day in which he led the New York Jets to a 28-14 victory over the New England Patriots in front of 78,535 appreciative fans. In transforming himself from suspected slacker to Sultan of Swagger, the former USC star showed he’s much more than a glorified game manager.
Best of all, Sanchez stepped up at a time when he could have tripped and fallen in the most conspicuous of ways.
Having been anointed as Super Bowl favorites by their boisterous head coach, Rex Ryan, the Jets mustered a meek offensive effort in a season-opening defeat to the Ravens last Monday night, prompting fears that Sanchez, the fifth overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft, had regressed.
Now fast forward to the start of Sunday’s game: Brady led the Pats on a pair of long, sustained drives, the second culminating with a six-yard touchdown pass to Wes Welker(notes) that gave New England a 7-0 lead with 13:17 left in the second quarter.
At that point the Jets had gained a grand total of five yards on three plays, and an apparent Sanchez interception had been overturned on a replay review. While Brady converted first down after first down against the Jets’ vaunted defense, Sanchez fidgeted on the sidelines. “It seemed,” he said later, “like a lifetime until we got the ball back.”
What better time for Sanchez to summon the best three quarters of his professional life?
After taking over at his own 23-yard line, Sanchez handed off twice to halfback LaDainian Tomlinson(notes). After the second of L.T.’s consecutive two-yard gains, the sparkling new stadium the Jets share with the Giants was filled with boos.
Sanchez won over the crowd by calmly dropping back and finding wideout Braylon Edwards(notes) for 13 yards, the first of seven passes he’d throw on the biggest regular-season drive to date of his NFL career. He completed all seven, for 64 yards, including an improvisational, Favresque flip to Tomlinson under heavy pressure to convert a key first down and a gorgeous, 10-yard fade (preceded by a crafty pump-fake) to Edwards on third-and-3 that the receiver adroitly corralled in the left corner of the end zone as Patriots cornerback Darius Butler(notes) fell on top of him.
Edwards got up and celebrated the game-tying touchdown by dancing in Butler’s face, incurring a 15-yard taunting penalty. Sanchez charged off the field like a man who’d just had the Statue of Liberty excised from atop his shoulders.
“After that first touchdown, his whole face changed – you could see the energy,” fullback Tony Richardson(notes) said of Sanchez. “[The drive] obviously showed a lot of growth from Mark’s standpoint. He was facing a great defense, going up against [Patriots coach] Bill Belichick, everything. He showed a lot of resolve, stood in the pocket and took us down the field.”
Said cornerback Antonio Cromartie(notes), who had a second-half interception of Brady and forced another pick by breaking up a pass to Randy Moss(notes) on the first play of the fourth quarter: “Mark stood up and had fun and just played big. Oh man, his swagger was at 1,000.”
There were other impressive numbers: Sanchez completed a career-best 21 of 30 passes for 220 yards while registering his first-ever three-touchdown effort, all without turning over the ball.
To the trained eye, the kid’s command of his throws was uncanny. In the locker room after the game, former NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer – whose son, Brian, is the Jets’ offensive coordinator – was effusive in his praise of Sanchez: “He was something. Count the throws that weren’t drilled in there, but were feathered into the receivers' hands. He threw into little holes. His ability to drift the ball into tight spaces was impressive.”
It was especially significant because of what had gone down six days earlier. In the Jets’ 10-9 defeat to the Ravens, Sanchez completed only 10 of 21 passes for a paltry 74 yards, and his cool presence during last year’s stirring run to the AFC championship game seemed a distant memory. “It’s tough when you lose that first game,” Sanchez said Sunday. “It feels like you’re 0-10. This game couldn’t come soon enough.”
There was talk that Ryan needed to simplify Sanchez’s role – the approach when the quarterback had struggled as a rookie – but the coach went the other way. While Brian Schottenheimer preached a play-to-play focus to his charges, Ryan mandated that the quarterback assume more responsibility.
“Just giving him the opportunity was huge,” linebacker Bart Scott(notes) said. “It helps us play better if he’s able to have the whole playbook open up. He feels better, and it gives him confidence when he knows they have confidence in him.”
The Jets needed their quarterback to step up given the loaded circumstances. Losing to the rival Patriots would have been bitter enough; slipping to 0-2 and falling two games behind the Pats and Dolphins in the AFC East loomed as a particularly distasteful prospect. By winning, the Jets gave themselves a chance to play for a first-place tie in Miami next Sunday night.
Even after the critical, game-tying drive at the start of the second quarter, Sanchez had chances to falter. Shortly before halftime Brady connected with rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez(notes) on a 46-yard catch-and-run, then caught the Jets’ defense in a confused state and sent Moss on a streak before New York’s coaches had relayed the call from the sidelines.
Revis, coming off the highly publicized contract dispute that kept him away from training camp, gave chase and aggravated his left hamstring injury, pulling up just as Moss was stretching to reach Brady’s 34-yard throw to the end zone. The receiver made a one-handed, "are-you-kidding-me?" catch to put New England ahead 14-7, while Revis hobbled to the sidelines for good.
Sanchez, however, salvaged something for the Jets, connecting twice with tight end Dustin Keller(notes) (seven catches, 115 yards, one TD) to set up Nick Folk’s(notes) 49-yard field goal as the second quarter expired. If the Patriots felt they were in good shape with a 14-10 lead at intermission, they were mistaken. Brady’s three-word assessment of the aftermath: “We just sucked.”
And Sanchez simply rocked. New York closed to 14-13 with five minutes left in the third quarter on a 36-yarder by Folk, a score facilitated by the quarterback’s gusty decision on third-and-1 from his 12. After sprinting left on a bootleg, Sanchez could have tucked away the ball and run for the first down; instead, he looped a difficult pass to Keller, who caught it in stride and ended up with a 39-yard gain.
Two touchdown throws and a two-point conversion later, the Jets were back to being their brash, ebullient selves, and Sanchez had reaffirmed his key role – and perhaps had even squelched some internal skepticism.
“I was watching to see how he’d react,” conceded Mark Brunell(notes), the veteran quarterback signed by the team in July to serve as Sanchez’s backup and mentor. “When Mark gets frustrated out there, it’s very evident. But he handled everything like a pro [Sunday] and showed what type of player he is.
“It was great for his confidence, particularly after last week. He’s young, but he’s going to be a great player. I don’t think anybody could disagree right now.”
That’s debatable, but this much is certain: Count Sunday as a moment of truth seized for Sanchez, with many more tests to come.
THE HIGH FIVE …
• After the Pittsburgh Steelers went on the road and ripped the Tennessee Titans 19-11 despite gaining only 127 total yards, I've come to this conclusion: Ben Roethlisberger(notes) is extremely important to this team, but Troy Polamalu(notes) is even more important.
• Just when you were worrying that the Cincinnati Bengals, destroyed by the Patriots in Week 1, were the shakiest of last year's division winners, they outmuscled the Baltimore Ravens for a 15-10 victory, their eighth straight against AFC North opponents. I see Cincy, Pittsburgh and Baltimore slugging it out for divisional supremacy into December, and maybe battling into January for conference supremacy, too.
• For the second year in a row, former San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Nolan has made an instant impact as a defensive coordinator, as evidenced by the Miami Dolphins D's suffocating performance in a 14-10 road upset of the Minnesota Vikings. Miami is 2-0 with 20 total points allowed and is a game up on the Jets and Patriots in the AFC East – and I'm sure coach Tony Sparano is very, very grateful that Nolan and Denver Broncos coach Josh McDaniels couldn't coexist after a single season together.
• Two offseasons' worth of splashy additions (Jay Cutler(notes), Julius Peppers(notes), Mike Martz) and the healthy return of middle linebacker Brian Urlacher(notes) seem to have restored the Chicago Bears to the realm of contenders, as evidenced by Sunday's impressive 27-20 victory over the Cowboys in Dallas. Do not sleep on this team.
• Quick quiz: Which young playmaker's breakout performance brought this redeye-taking scribe and dorky soccer dad the most pleasure over the weekend: That of Lions halfback Jahvid Best(notes) (232 combined rushing-receiving yards, three TDs vs. the Eagles), Cowboys receiverDez Bryant(notes) (a 62-yard punt return TD and two receptions for 52 yards) or U-15 soccer player Natalie Silver (two left-footed goals within 90 seconds; taken down on a run through the box to set up game-clinching penalty kick)? Duh.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
2. Moss' incomprehensibly terrific end-zone grab of that gorgeous pass from Brady just before halftime of Sunday's game. While sprinting to stay ahead of Darrelle Revis, Moss extended his right arm and assimilated the ball into the palm of his hand. He kept hold of the ball while getting his feet down in the back of the end zone, never bothering to pull it toward his body, or even to curl his arm upward to get a better grip. Moss just Venus Fly Trapped it, and that was that. (So that's how one escapes Revis Island? Simple, right?) Calvin Johnson(notes) – take note: Employing such a technique is one way to avoid having your brilliant end zone catch nullified by an arcane rule. Look, I've been critical of Moss many times for his attitude and, uh, selectively competitive approach to his craft. But seeing him make that catch Sunday reminded me that "Superfreak" is one of the most exceptional athletes I've covered, and it's hard to imagine that he won't end up in the Hall of Fame when all is said and done.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
Did Brandon Jacobs(notes) lose his head Sunday night, or just his helmet – and is one as hollow as the other? If you were wondering how the struggling halfback's helmet possibly ended up in the Lucas Oil Stadium stands early in the third quarter of the New York Giants' blowout defeat to the Indianapolis Colts … well, I do have a theory: Jacobs angrily chucked it after a docile-looking run that went nowhere, then tried to play it off like it accidentally flew out of his hand after getting caught in his fingers as he was attempting to slam it to the ground. Um, OK, Brandon – whatever you say. Maybe the ghost who stole Thurman Thomas' helmet before the opening drive of Super Bowl XXVI snuck over and drop-kicked it into the 10th row. Do I even have to mention how fortunate Jacobs was that nobody got hurt? I know I'd have been pretty stoked if I was watching a game with my kids and a big blue helmet came shooting across my field of vision. Instead of trying to keep it, as one Colts fan apparently attempted to do, I'd probably charge down toward the field with the intention of returning it to Jacobs – and giving the 6-foot-4, 264-pounder a piece of my mind. And then I'd come to my senses, slowly place the helmet at my feet (while showing my hands at all times) and slink back to my seat.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"It's not just about crossing the goal line, now it's about how pretty u r while crossing!”
– Text Sunday night from Kurt (Twinkle Toes) Warner, on Monday's "Dancing with the Stars" debut