FLORHAM PARK, N.J.It has taken a few stern reminders from his head coach and offensive coordinator, but Mark Sanchez finally gets the idea: Better to play it safe and live to see another play than throw an interception and watch your team lose.
The Jets' rookie quarterback has learned his lesson well, as evidenced by his vastly reduced interception numbers in recent weeks. That stat is music to Rex Ryan's and Brian Schottenheimer's ears: Sanchez has only six picks in his last six games, zero in his last three. It's no accident that the Jets are 5-1 in those games - and two wins from going to the Super Bowl.
"You figure out through this process what helps your team win and then you know what gets you beat, and turnovers gets you beat," Sanchez said. "In this league, turnovers will get you beat. When we don't turn the ball over, we have a chance."
But with the stakes raised significantly, it might be time for Sanchez to add one more element to his approach aside from not throwing the ball to the other team:
In Sunday's game against the Chargers, it might be time for Sanchez to win it through the air.
Sure, the Jets will go into the game with their "ground-and-pound" approach that stresses the run and relies on Sanchez not to mess things up with interceptions. If Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene can move the chains, take time off the clock and keep Philip Rivers' high-octane offense off the field, then fine.
But there's no guarantee the Jets will be able to keep Rivers' offense in check, especially if he gets hot early. San Diego has too many weapons to assume that the Jets can handle the Chargers effectively from start to finish. Rivers. Antonio Gates. Vincent Jackson. LaDainian Tomlinson. Darren Sproles. Malcom Floyd. Anywhere you look on the Chargers' offense, there's a skill-position player capable of firing off a big play.
No wonder the Chargers haven't scored fewer than 20 points in a game all season. They averaged 28.4 points per game, the fourth-highest total in the NFL.
Surely the Jets like their chances in a low-scoring, slug-it-out game of smashmouth. But if they have to put up a bunch of points, then Sanchez will have to put the ball in the air more than Ryan and Schottenheimer might prefer.
The question is: Will Sanchez be capable of winning it on his own, or will his being forced into a must-pass situation leave him vulnerable to interceptions?
We might find out Sunday.
"If we have to play that way, I think Mark would be fine," Schottenheimer said. "I think he's gotten to the point where he understands that he's just got to go through his progressions, and if something's not there down the field, then don't throw it and take the check-down pass instead. He's not forcing the ball like he was earlier in this season."
But if the Jets need to play catch-up, Sanchez might have to force a few things Sunday. Or at least force the issue with a more vibrant passing game.
Sanchez has had only five games in which he has thrown the ball at least 30 times, and the Jets are 2-3 in those games. He has totaled seven touchdown passes and seven interceptions in those games. In five of his last six starts, Sanchez attempted fewer than 20 passes; the Jets won all five, relying on the running game. In last week's 24-14 wild-card win over the Bengals, Sanchez was 12-for-15 for 182 yards and a touchdown.
"It was a confidence-building game and it was important to win on the road like that in a hostile environment against a very good team," Sanchez said. "Now we just need to build on it. We're rolling right now. We feel like things are going well, but we still have a long way to go."
That Sanchez has gotten this far - especially after his midseason struggles, including throwing 14 interceptions in the Jets' 1-6 skid - is a testament to his persistence. But this might be the game in which the Jets need him to carry the offense on his back.
We'll see if he's up to the challenge.