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The Patriots imploded in stunning fashion, losing their third straight postseason game, including Super Bowl XLII to the Giants and last year's wild-card game at home to the Ravens. In the first half alone tight end Alge Crumpler dropped a pass in the end zone; Belichick risked a fake punt from his own 38 with 1:14 left, which failed and led to a touchdown that put the Jets up 14--3; and left guard Logan Mankins drew an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty, scuttling a Patriots drive right before halftime. All this after Belichick had benched Wes Welker for New England's first offensive series because the wide receiver made several references to feet and toes in an interview last Thursday, a not-so-subtle tweak of Ryan and the foot-fetish videos he allegedly made with his wife, Michelle. Neither Belichick nor Welker addressed the benching after the game, though the back-and-forth of words between the teams continued into the night. Patriots receiver Deion Branch questioned the class of several unnamed Jets. Linebacker Bart Scott told ESPN that the New England defense couldn't stop a nosebleed.
Gliding above the fray was Sanchez, who last year took the Jets to the AFC Championship Game as a rookie. While he played well during the postseason a year ago, it wasn't clear when this year's playoffs began if he could lead the team on the drives from which legends are born. But in Indianapolis on wild-card weekend Sanchez marched downfield late, coolly hitting Edwards for 18 yards on the right sideline to set up the decisive field goal. Against the Patriots, Sanchez made big throws all night, none more critical than the seven-yard fade Holmes snagged in the left corner of the end zone with 13:06 left in the fourth quarter, a catch Holmes said "probably was" more difficult than his game-winning touchdown as a Steeler in Super Bowl XLIII.
Now, as Ryan predicted would happen in training camp, Sanchez is looked upon as a Jets strength, not a weakness. To Nick, his son's excellence under pressure was simply the result of hard work dating back to his childhood in Mission Viejo, Calif., where Sanchez was a ball boy for Carson Palmer's high school team. Sanchez and his father would watch Palmer practice with Bob Johnson, the Southern California--area quarterback guru, and mimic their drills when they were finished.
"We couldn't afford to attend [Johnson's camps] then, but there was nothing that said we couldn't go watch," Nick says. "As soon as their workout was over, Mark and I would go on the field and mirror those workouts. A big part was conceptual. What's the down and distance? What's the score? What part of the field are you on? How much time is left? We'd spend hours over a long period of seasons and years to make him more competitive, and it worked well until Mark had a chance to be coached by Bob firsthand."
Says Johnson, who coached Sanchez during his junior and senior years at Mission Viejo High, "There are tons of things [to playing quarterback], but the most important is footwork and balance, and we have tons of drills that represent that."
Johnson recalls the young Sanchez as a gym rat and three-sport athlete who wanted to learn, qualities that have served him well in Brian Schottenheimer's offense. On Sunday in New England, where Sanchez had looked lost in two previous starts, he had a 127.3 rating and completed a range of throws, from back-shoulder strikes to lasers over the middle. "As a competitor, when somebody tells you, 'You can't,' all you want to do is prove them wrong," Sanchez says. "Learn from those [losses] but don't dwell on the emotions of those games. Figure out what happened, why I forced balls [and] got sloppy with footwork."
New York's victory wasn't an hour old, and Sanchez was already thinking about Pittsburgh. As he stood over a sink in the visitors' locker room, flipping his tie over his left shoulder so he could brush his teeth, his backup, veteran Mark Brunell, walked behind him.
"Everything you did last week, do it again this week," Brunell said.
"Nah, I'm going to change it," Sanchez joked.
It was one last back-and-forth before they headed into the night, ready to scrap for two more games, to live up to the motto of men like Ryan and Byrd: Play like a Jet.