With two knee braces, one full practice, and the Jets' playoff hopes on the line, the $50 million rookie returns to the huddle after injuring his right PCL Dec. 3 versus the Bills in Toronto. Sunday's "must-win" match-up against the Falcons is an important test, one of those snap shots in a marathon season that may demonstrate how far along Sanchez has come. How will he respond to the injury? How will he respond to possible snow and wind? How will he perform after an extended rest with playoff-like pressure on his shoulders?
The answers await us. But it appears the Jets, based on how they've been winning lately regardless of who lines up under center, will take the pressure off the quarterback to win the game. Enter Mark Sanchez: "game manager." Hand the ball off, let the defense smother the opponent. Don't risk good field position with turnovers. It may be boring, but it has the Jets still in the race.
New York's win over the Buccaneers set back the forward pass about 25 years. Neither Tampa Bay QB Josh Freeman nor Jets QB Kellen Clemens could hit the broad side of a barn. Well, the choppy Clemens made a few nice throws in the fourth quarter. He also didn't turn the ball over, an area where Sanchez has struggled.
So here come the 6-7 Falcons, who may be without several starters including second-year QB Matt Ryan. Atlanta's playoff chances are all but dead thanks to two straight losses, adding up to four defeats in the last five games. The Falcons are done. But they are dangerous. They nearly beat the Saints last week without Ryan and RB Michael Turner.
If Ryan can't go, the Jets defense will face another back-up QB. Chris Redman has been okay filling in, at least statistically. Over the past three games the seven-year veteran has completed 58% of his passes for 4 TDs and 3 INTs. He passed for 303 yards in a near-upset of the Saints last week. He's not great, but he's better than the last three arms faced by Rex Ryan's defense.
Sunday's weather may nullify the best laid passing plans. Like turnovers (game management), dealing with the cold and wind is an area where Sanchez must improve.
As I wrote following the October loss to the Bills, Sanchez should call Phil Simms about the Meadowlands winds. Knowing when he should gun it, when he should float it, and when he should just throw it away are aspects of the game that could come into play Sunday, as Sanchez continues to take baby steps along Ryan's color-coded walkway.
The Jets' running game is clicking, the defense is eating inexperienced QBs alive, and another banged-up opponent with a losing record is on the schedule. It's all there for the Jets taking. Now it's up to Sanchez to respond. His season shouldn't be judged based on only one game, but because of his injury, the weather and the stakes, this game is a worthy measuring stick.
2) Speaking of the Jets defense, how good is it? Through 13 weeks, the Jets had given up the fewest points (211) in the NFL. And don't forget opponents have scored 7 TDs on defense and special teams (Tedd Ginn, anyone?) against the Jets this season! That means the ‘D' has given up just 16 offensive TDs in 13 games, an excellent ratio.
The Jets also are ranked #1 in yards allowed. Is Ryan's beloved unit "great?" I don't think so. Very good is more like it. There are no great defenses in the NFL this season, the first time I can remember such a void.
3) I love Shonn Greene. But the fumbling is unacceptable and somewhat of a mystery. He didn't fumble much in college. His three fumbles this season didn't come on especially ferocious hits. He has small hands, as some newspaper reports pointed out this week. Regardless of the cause, he has to get it fixed a la Tiki Barber. He has too much talent to sit on the sidelines.
4) Playoffs? Well, everything continues to fall in the Jets favor (and in favor of the other teams chasing the wild card leaders).
The 7-7 Jaguars loss to the 14-0 Colts Thursday night was huge, since the Jets would lose a head-to-head tie-breaker to Jacksonville. If the playoffs started today (before Sunday's games), the 8-4 Broncos and 7-6 Ravens would qualify for the AFC wild cards. Also at 7-6, the Jets and Dolphins are on the outside looking in, with Miami having swept the season series (Tedd Ginn, anyone?).
The Ravens conference record is 6-4, the Jets 5-5, the Dolphins 5-4. To my eyes it still looks like the Jets will have to run the table to reach the post-season. Check in next week.