CINCINNATI - One playoff game into his career, Mark Sanchez is giving a pretty good off-Broadway performance.
So are the rest of the New York Jets, who are no longer an overlooked team after dismantling the AFC North champions twice within a week.
Any more doubters?
With their rookie quarterback playing mistake-free football, the Jets turned their surprising playoff appearance into a long-running production Saturday. Sanchez threw a touchdown pass, and the NFL’s top running game took it from there, setting up a 24-14 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
“It’s pretty special,” Sanchez said. “It’s got nothing to do with me.”
Actually, the Jets’ first playoff win since 2004 had everything to do with him.
Playing in single-digit wind chills against a defense that tried its best to put the game in his hands, Sanchez went 12-for-15 for 182 yards and a stratospheric passer rating of 139.4.
Considered the Jets’ weakest link heading into the playoffs, he became their focal point, getting his first playoff win ahead of Carson Palmer, his boyhood idol.
“He had the eye of the tiger today and he was ready to get out there and throw it around,” coach Rex Ryan said. “I see him getting better and better each day on the practice field. What a job he’s done. I think he’s tired of hearing he’s the weak link on this football team.”
He wasn’t the only rookie making plays under pressure for New York (10-7). Third-round pick Shonn Greene ran for 135 yards, including a 39-yard touchdown, leading a running game that churned out 171 yards for a back-to-back sweep of the Bengals (10-7).
Cedric Benson ran for a Bengals-record 169 yards in a playoff game, but Cincinnati managed little else. Its streak without a playoff win reached 19 years and counting.
“They might have a chance to make a move,” said Palmer, who was off-target and under pressure most of the game. “Their defense is that good.”
Take Palmer’s word for that.
Cincinnati went to the Meadowlands six days earlier and got turned into road kill. The Jets ran for 257 yards, and the Bengals managed a total of 72 yards, with Chad Ochocinco getting shut out. Little changed the second time around – Ochocinco had two catches for 28 yards in the rematch.
“This was a great team effort,” said Ryan, who won in his playoff debut as a head coach. “We’re a good football team. If people don’t believe that, they soon will.”
No one should count the Jets out now, not the way their coach did two weeks ago. Ryan thought the Jets were out of contention following a 10-7 loss to the Atlanta Falcons that was set up by Sanchez’s three interceptions. Then, everything lined up in their favor.
The Colts pulled their starters a week later, allowing the Jets to rally for a win, while four other playoff contenders lost. Then, the Bengals showed up at the Meadowlands and lost, 37-0, with little at stake.
Ryan’s father, Buddy, was the defensive line coach for the ’69 Jets, who won the Super Bowl title that Broadway Joe Namath had guaranteed. These Jets came into the playoffs as an off-Broadway show, lacking a star quarterback who could deliver a win.
Sanchez looked like a playoff pro, joining Shaun King, Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger as rookie quarterbacks to win postseason starts.
“It just blows your mind,” he said. “It’s unbelievable. I hope 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 the league.
Playing without a glove on his passing hand in an 8-degree wind chill, the kid from Southern California handled it without a bobble.
Afterward, the team presented a game ball to owner Woody Johnson, whose daughter, Casey, was found dead in her Los Angeles home on Monday. Johnson’s eyes were red as he left the locker room.
The Jets also had a scare at the outset when punter Steve Weatherford was ruled out because of dizziness and an elevated heartbeat. Kicker Jay Feely punted for the first time in his NFL career, averaging 31 yards on seven kicks.