One playoff game into his career, Mark Sanchezis giving a pretty good off-Broadway performance.
So are the rest of the New York Jets, who are no longer anoverlooked team after dismantling the AFC North champions twicewithin a week.
Any more doubters?
With their rookie quarterback playing mistake-free, the Jetsturned their surprising playoff appearance into a long-runningproduction Saturday. Sanchez threw a touchdown pass, and the NFL'stop running game took it from there, setting up a 24-14 victoryover the Cincinnati Bengals.
"It's pretty special," Sanchez said. "It's got nothing to dowith me."
Actually, the Jets' first playoff win since 2004 had everythingto do with him.
Playing in single-digit wind chills against a defense that triedits best to put the game in his hands, Sanchez went 12 of 15 for182 yards and a stratospheric passer rating of 139.4.
Considered the Jets' weakest link heading into the playoffs, hebecame their focal point, getting his first playoff win ahead ofCarson Palmer, his boyhood idol.
"He had the eye of the tiger today and he was ready to get outthere and throw it around," coach Rex Ryan said. "I see himgetting better and better each day on the practice field. What ajob he's done. I think he's tired of hearing he's the weak link onthis football team."
He wasn't the only rookie making plays under pressure for NewYork (10-7). Third-round pick Shonn Greene ran for 135 yards,including a 39-yard touchdown, leading a running game that churnedout 171 yards for a rare back-to-back sweep of the Bengals (10-7).
Cedric Benson ran for a Bengals-record 169 yards in a playoffgame, but Cincinnati managed little else. Its streak without aplayoff win reached 19 years and counting.
"They might have a chance to make a move," said Palmer, whowas off-target and under pressure most of the game. "Their defenseis that good."
Take Palmer's word for that.
Cincinnati went to the Meadowlands six days earlier and gotturned into road kill. The Jets ran for 257 yards, and the Bengalsmanaged a total of 72 yards, with Chad Ochocinco getting shut out.Little changed the second time around - Ochocinco had two catchesfor 28 yards in the rematch.
"This was a great team effort," said Ryan, who won in hisplayoff debut as a head coach. "We're a good football team. Ifpeople don't believe that, they soon will."
No one should count the Jets out now, not the way their coachdid two weeks ago. Ryan thought the Jets were out of contentionfollowing a 10-7 loss to the Falcons that was set up by Sanchez'sthree interceptions. Then, everything lined up in their favor.
The Colts pulled their starters a week later, allowing the Jetsto rally for a win, while four other playoff contenders lost. Then,the Bengals showed up at the Meadowlands and lost 37-0 with littleat stake.
Ryan's father, Buddy, was the defensive line coach for the '69Jets, who won the Super Bowl title that Broadway Joe Namath hadguaranteed. These Jets came into the playoffs as an off-Broadwayshow, lacking a star quarterback who could deliver a win.
Sanchez looked like a playoff pro, joining Shaun King, JoeFlacco and Ben Roethlisberger as rookie quarterbacks to winpostseason starts. At times, Sanchez found himself on the sidelinesoaking it all in.
"It just blows your mind," he said. "It's unbelievable. Ihope I have this feeling next week."
Sanchez was by far the lowest-ranked passer in the playoffs,throwing 20 interceptions in his rookie season - second-most in theleague. The Bengals wanted to put the game in his hands. Playingwithout a glove on his passing hand in an 8-degree wind chill, thekid from Southern California handled it without a bobble.
Afterward, the team present a game ball to owner Woody Johnson,whose daughter, Casey, was found dead in her Los Angeles home onMonday. Johnson's eyes were red as he left the locker room.
The Jets also had a scare at the outset when punter SteveWeatherford was ruled out because of dizziness and an elevatedheartbeat. Kicker Jay Feely punted for the first time in his NFLcareer, averaging 31 yards on seven kicks. He also made 20-yardfield goal with 5:47 to go that put Cincinnati too far behind.
"I was so happy that I was kicking a field goal (then) insteadof punting," Feely said. "That was great."
The Jets pulled ahead 14-7 by halftime with two big plays offSanchez's hand. He faked a handoff and made a perfect pitchout toGreene, who needed only one block to find open space for a 39-yardtouchdown run, the longest of his career.
In the second quarter, Sanchez caught the Bengals off-guard. Herolled to his right and found tight end Dustin Keller runninguncovered beyond the secondary. The throw was perfect, and Kellerkept his balance for the last 15 yards while safety Chinedum Ndukwevainly tried to knock him out of bounds.
At halftime, Sanchez was 7 of 10 for 94 yards with a passerrating of 132.9. It could have been even better - Braylon Edwardslet a pass slip through his hands in the end zone.
Sanchez led an eight-play, 75-yard drive that culminated inThomas Jones' 9-yard run for a 21-7 lead late in the third quarter.Benson broke a 47-yard touchdown run - the longest in Bengalsplayoff history - that got Cincinnati within a touchdown, butSanchez and Greene turned it on again.
The game ended with a little more Jets serendipity. ShayneGraham, the Bengals' franchise-tagged player, missed two fieldgoals in the second half, including a 28-yarder with 3:49 to gothat essentially sealed it.
NOTES: Greene was the third rookie since 2000 to rush for 100yards in a playoff game. ... Feely had one punt in college anddidn't punt in high school. ... Bengals LB Rashad Jeanty broke hisleft leg on the opening kickoff. ... Bengals WRs Laveranues Coles(thumb) and Andre Caldwell (ankle) suffered injuries in the secondquarter, but returned in the second half. ... Palmer said he'llhave surgery on his left (non-throwing) thumb, which he injured inthe fifth game of the season. He wore a removable brace for therest of the season.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times