Mark Sanchez had Jets Nation convinced he had turned the corner.
He was in command of his huddle and Marty Mornhinweg's offense. His passes were crisp and thrown with purpose. And in just three minutes Saturday night, he delivered a beautifully thrown 23-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Jeff Cumberland on the opening drive.
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It seemed Sanchez was on his way to keeping Geno Smith on the bench for good. Then it happened.
Then came the throw -- that one perfectly telegraphed pass in the end zone that was meant for Kellen Winslow but wound up in the hands of Marcus Trufant. And in the blink of an eye, Sanchez reverted to his old self, the man Jets fans fear the most.
But in the end, the fifth-year quarterback again found a way to bounce back. Sanchez went 13-for-23 for 169 yards, a touchdown and an interception in a 37-13 win over the Jaguars at MetLife Stadium.
"When the protection held up for us, Mark did a nice job throwing the football for us," coach Rex Ryan said.
Ryan said the team didn't think "it was prudent" to play Smith because of his sprained right ankle. He also said he had no regrets about allowing the rookie to practice on a tender ankle all week. "We'll see how he's doing as the week progresses,'' he said, "and we'll take it from there."
Translation: The Jets' quarterback competition will continue for at least another week.
"Hopefully, Geno's ready to play against a great opponent," Ryan said, referring to the Giants next Saturday night.
Smith told reporters that Ryan informed him Friday that he wouldn't be playing. He also said his ankle is "doing a lot better."
Sanchez masterfully led the offense on its first drive of the game, delivering quick passes of 11 and 14 yards to Stephen Hill and Jeremy Kerley before finding Cumberland for an easy score three minutes into the first quarter. Aided by a 44-yard kickoff return by Clyde Gates, it took the Jets just six plays to go 59 yards for the 7-0 lead.
But on the Jets' first drive of the second quarter, Sanchez almost unraveled.
Winslow did his quarterback no favors on the interception, however. Instead of getting between the ball and the defender (who, coincidentally, is the younger brother of Jets cornerback Isaiah Trufant), he allowed Trufant to jump in front of the pass for the easy interception.
Ryan -- who generated headlines when he labeled Smith's Wednesday practice, in which he threw three team-drill interceptions, "brutal" -- seemed far more understanding of Sanchez's shortcomings in the red zone.
"It's not just he turned it over, we turned the ball over," said Ryan, who also took the blame after Sanchez drained precious time off the clock with only seconds remaining in the first half.
The Jets had two possessions inside the 5-yard line in the first half and failed to score both times, prompting boos from the sparse crowd after Sanchez's interception, and the frustrated fans again made their displeasure known when the second quarter came to a close.
Sanchez surprisingly played through the third quarter, trotting onto the field with the second-team offense to start the second half, and he helped lead a seven-play, 50-yard scoring drive that was capped by Kahlil Bell's 5-yard touchdown run to make it 17-13 Jets with 7:20 left in the quarter.
Bell, who was re-signed this past week to help the depleted running back corps, scored again after Danny Lansanah's interception (and subsequent fumble recovery by teammate Antonio Allen) gave the Jets the ball at the Jags' 14. Bell soon bowled in from the 1 to put the Jets up 24-13 with 4:36 left in the third. Matt Simms took over the QB duties to start the fourth quarter.
"He commanded the game like he was supposed to," rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson said of Sanchez, "and he did what he was supposed to: lead us to the promised land."
Sanchez's second-quarter interception was the blemish on an otherwise productive day for the Jets' offense. But unlike last week in Detroit, when he was praised for rebounding from a pick-6 on their opening drive, Sanchez's decision-making remains an area of concern.