It was a few minutes after the Jets beat the Bengals, 26-10, on Thanksgiving night at New Meadowlands Stadium, and Mark Sanchez was standing at his locker, wearing a dark gray suit, a navy blue tie, and a giant scowl.
The Jets had just improved to 9-2, but Sanchez looked more like they'd just been eliminated from the playoffs. The second-year quarterback was already looking ahead to the Monday night game in Foxborough and realizing there was no way he could play like this against the Patriots.
"It's going to be imperative for me not to make bad decisions," he said. "You do that against Tom Brady, and you're dead."
Not much else to say, is there? Sanchez knew full well what the stakes and what the risks were, and he failed to seize the moment in what turned out to be one of the most humiliating defeats in franchise history, a 45-3 loss that will reverberate for quite some time. Sanchez threw for only 164 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions for a paltry 27.8 rating, while Brady was nothing short of brilliant in picking apart the Jets' defense with 326 passing yards, four touchdowns and a 148.9 rating.
Just as he was after the Bengals game, Sanchez was beating himself up after this one. And with good reason. It's one thing to stink it up against a 2-8 team at home and have your teammates pick you up; it's quite another to struggle on a frigid, windswept night on the road against a future Hall of Fame quarterback.
"I made some poor decisions," Sanchez lamented. "I felt like I just started pressing a little too much before I needed to."
Of course, it wasn't all Sanchez's fault. In fact, Rex Ryan's defense, the one he always brags so much about, was equally culpable in the most lopsided defeat of his entire coaching career - head coach, coordinator, position coach, you name it. Brady's laserlike focus was too much for the Jets to handle, and by the time they went into halftime, it was 24-3 and all but over.
Sanchez tried to lead the Jets back in the second half, but he wound up throwing all three of his interceptions after intermission. It was reminiscent of the last time Sanchez played at Gillette Stadium; he threw four interceptions in a 31-14 loss to the Patriots in his rookie season.
The weather conditions may have been a factor Monday night, but Sanchez wasn't making excuses. Nor should he have; after all, Brady played in the exact same conditions and still eviscerated the Jets' defense. "I would never say it was the cold or the weather, but me and the receivers were just not playing our best game," he said. "They started awfully fast, and instead of fighting to come back like we normally do, I threw some bad balls."
But if the Jets are going to make a legitimate run for the Super Bowl, then Sanchez is clearly going to have to pick up his game. Sanchez got off to a terrific start this season with eight touchdowns and no interceptions in his first four games. But in his last eight games, he has only eight touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Those numbers are simply unacceptable for a quarterback whose aspirations are nothing less than to win a championship this season. He knows it. Ryan knows it. The rest of the players know it.
With four regular-season games to go - three against teams .500 or better - it's time for Sanchez to step up and get back to the player he knows he can be. If the Jets intend to end up this season like those '85 Bears, then he'll have to be the one to make it happen.