These soap opera stars live for the limelight—and nowhere is it brighter than the postseason
The Jets began the season as protagonists on HBO's Hard Knocks and spent the rest of the year courting controversy even after the reality cameras stopped rolling. Despite the shenanigans, New York's second straight trip to the postseason has been built on sound fundamentals. On defense the Jets stuff the run and blitz the quarterback. On offense they have a thumping ground game and a knack for the big play.
At their best this season—back-to-back overtime thrillers in Detroit and Cleveland, a gut-it-out win at Pittsburgh following disheartening losses to New England and Miami—quarterback Mark Sanchez was cool even in the most frenetic moments. The flip side? In those December losses to the Patriots and the Dolphins, Sanchez looked like a second-year player in over his head.
The young quarterback's consistency will be the dominant story line of the Jets' postseason. A year ago Sanchez thrived in three playoff road games, compiling a 92.7 quarterback rating at Cincinnati, San Diego and Indianapolis, and nearly matching Peyton Manning throw for throw in the Jets' 30--17 loss in the AFC Championship Game. The USC product clearly wasn't awed by the postseason stage, and he won't be now. "Our team plays best when we're backed up against the wall," Sanchez said in the aftermath of the Week 15 victory over the Steelers. "We know what's at stake this year."
While Sanchez's ability to make plays on the run is a plus, he is also growing more comfortable as a pocket passer. He is deft with the football, concealing handoffs (real and fake), and he steps strongly into throws even in the face of an oncoming rush. But limiting the cold streaks such as those he went through against the Pats and the Dolphins—his footwork was scattershot, he locked onto receivers and he forced throws (44.2%, four interceptions)—will be Sanchez's biggest challenge.
"I'm sure he doesn't like people questioning him, doubting him," offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer says. "It happened last year. He had a bad stretch, and [people asked], 'Who is this guy?' He's mentally tough. That's one of the things we liked about him. He bounces back."
New York's defense survived season-ending injuries to defensive tackle Kris Jenkins and safety Jim Leonhard to boast another tough attacking unit. Coach Rex Ryan likes to rotate his pass rushers and deploy them from different angles for 60 minutes. In his scheme everyone gets sacks—linemen, linebackers, safeties, even cornerbacks. The Jets thrive on pressure. One of the signature plays of their season came against Pittsburgh, when veteran pass rusher Jason Taylor broke through the line of scrimmage and tackled running back Mewelde Moore for a vital safety. It was a bold play by a team that prefers loud proclamations, on and off the field. Look for more of the same in the postseason.
HOW TO BEAT THE JETS
The way to attack the Jets is to make Mark Sanchez hold on to the football, increasing the likelihood of bad throws or coverage sacks. Teams that shut down New York also kept running backs LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene bottled up in the first half of games, which forced the Jets' line, whose strength is run-blocking, to pass-protect more as games wore on.
Opposing offenses have been more comfortable attacking the Jets' secondary since safety Jim Leonhard was sidelined with a broken shinbone in early December. While cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie still blanket receivers and close off the deep routes, a patient and accurate quarterback can find gains underneath and across the middle.
How AFC sixth seeds have fared since 1990
1 Won Super Bowl
0 Lost Super Bowl
1 Lost conference championship game
2 Lost in divisional round
16 Lost in wild-card round
MR. CLUTCH Sanchez excelled this year when the Jets' most needed the big win.