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Rookie Sanchez shows a veteran's poise

Mark Sanchez (Getty Images)
Quarterback Mark Sanchez #6 of the New York Jets smiles on the field in the final moments of...
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Mark Kriegel

Mark Kriegel is the national columnist for FOXSports.com. He is the author of two New York Times best sellers, Namath: A Biography and Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich, which Sports Illustrated called "the best sports biography of the year."

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A year ago, Mark Sanchez watched from the stands at Qualcomm Stadium as the Chargers beat the Colts in the playoffs. “Sat way up at the top,” he recalled. “Right by the scoreboard.”

Sanchez, from nearby Orange County, said just he wanted to be a fan. But the truth is, he was already assessing his chances as a professional. Obviously, he liked what he saw, too. Less than two weeks later, he declared for the NFL draft, a decision that incensed his college coach.

“Mark’s going against the grain on this decision and he knows that,” said Pete Carroll, citing unspecified “statistics” that allegedly supported his argument.

Well, a year later, here’s a stat for Carroll, who’s heading back to the NFL after bailing on his much-investigated USC team: two. Sanchez, who arrived at the interview room with a game ball Sunday, now has twice as many playoff wins as Carroll had in four pro seasons.

“You judge quarterbacks on wins and losses,” said Rex Ryan, the Jets’ rookie head coach. “He’s not a rookie anymore.”

The learning curve is still steep for Sanchez. Yes, he threw 20 interceptions in the regular season. But just one in the last month. The Jets are 4-0 in that stretch, 2-0 in the playoffs.

At 23, Sanchez has done more than the great Brett Favre could do with the Jets. Part of this has to do with Ryan. Part of it is the kind of old-fashioned running game that softened the favored Chargers on Sunday. But the greatest part is Sanchez himself. He understands what young ballplayers — young quarterbacks in particular — find so difficult to grasp. He knows what he can’t do. What’s more, he knows what his team can, what the offense is supposed to look like, or, as Ryan puts it, “old-fashioned ground-and-pound football.”

As it happened, Sanchez came back from a lousy first half to outplay and outpoise the Chargers’ Philip Rivers in the second, rolling out to find his tight end, Dustin Keller, for a touchdown in the back of the end zone. Then again, the rookie had plenty of help.

“We didn’t quit on our running game,” said Sanchez. “We knew we wanted to dominate the line of scrimmage and we did. ... There were a couple of holes early. We were just a tackle away from breaking one. We could just kind of feel it.”

Finally, with 7:26 left in the game, Shonn Greene — another rookie, a third-round pick out of Iowa — went right through the middle of the Chargers defense for 53 yards and a touchdown. “Once I got through, all I had to do was make the safety miss,” said Greene, who finished with 128 yards on 23 carries. “After that, it was all green grass.”

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In fact, Greene’s unobstructed path had been cleared earlier with a lot of hard work by the Jets offensive line. “You don’t just swing an axe three times to chop down a tree,” said Nick Mangold, the center. “By the end of the third quarter, you could feel things starting to change. ... You just keep pounding them. Defenses wear down, and that’s our goal, to wear ‘em down.”

It was much the same on the other side of the ball, where the Chargers offense proved softer — both physically and psychologically — than the Jets defense. Again, the play to remember came in the fourth quarter, a Kerry Rhodes safety blitz that caught Rivers from the blind side and caused him to fumble. The Chargers recovered possession of the ball, but never the game.

“Sometimes,” said Ryan, “when you hit the quarterback the whole team feels it.”

Such was the case Sunday. Still, it bears mention that San Diego did a good deal to demoralize themselves. Nice as it is to praise the unlikely winners, the abundantly talented Chargers deserve what’s coming in the offseason. Once again, everybody’s preseason darling managed to underachieve in the playoffs.

There were several drives killed by penalties. There was some inexplicable play-calling, featuring the all-but-finished LaDainian Tomlinson — 12 carries, 24 yards — running off-tackle, as if Norv Turner had him confused with Jim Brown. Finally, with 13:20 left, the home team’s fans had the good sense to let out a resounding chorus of boo! Mercifully, it was the last time Turner called Tomlinson’s number.

Then there was Nate Kaeding. Having hit has last 69 field goals from inside the 40-yard-line, he missed two. And a 57-yarder, that wasn’t even close, for good measure.

“It’s going to be a tough few months,” said Kaeding, who might as well have been speaking for all the Chargers, a perennially poor playoff team.

Meanwhile, the Jets go to Indianapolis to play Peyton Manning and the Colts. Great teams have great quarterbacks; the conference championships would seem to prove that point. The remaining signal-callers include Manning, Favre, Drew Brees and Sanchez.

What were the odds? Obviously, Pete Carroll had no clue.

Just the same, the rookie likes his chances. He recalls that game a year ago. He knows even Peyton Manning can be beat.
Tagged: Colts, Jets, Chargers, Peyton Manning, Shonn Greene, Mark Sanchez

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