New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez (6) runs downs the...

New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez (6) runs downs the field after the Jets defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 24-14. (January 9, 2010) Credit: AP

CINCINNATI - You can see it in his expression, feel it in his body language. As the weeks go by, the maturation process unfolds. Right before our eyes, Mark Sanchez is turning into the quarterback the Jets thought they were getting in that draft-day blockbuster trade last April.

The confidence. The swagger. The aura. It is all there for the 23-year-old rookie. No matter the stage or the stakes. The bigger the situation, the better the vibe.

You saw it as soon as Sanchez took the field at frigid Paul Brown Stadium Saturdayfor his first playoff game; his energy and sense of purpose were palpable.

"He wanted this game in the worst way," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "He felt confident, he felt comfortable. He had the eye of the tiger today. I think he's tired of hearing he's the weak link on this football team instead of being just part of the success."

You can make it official now: Sanchez no longer is part of the problem.

Playing in only his 16th NFL game - matching his entire number of starts for USC - Sanchez was at his best in the Jets' 24-14 win over the Bengals in an AFC wild-card playoff game. On a day when the elements made Sanchez's boyhood idol, Carson Palmer, look more like the rookie, Sanchez was coolly efficient and made some of the biggest throws of his young career.

And if Braylon Edwards hadn't dropped a perfectly placed pass in the end zone late in the first quarter, who knows how dynamic the day would have been for Sanchez?

Yes, the Jets still are a team that relies on the run and relies on its defense. But with Sanchez now playing mostly turnover-free football, he is taking massive steps toward becoming the big-time quarterback the Jets had hoped for.

Sanchez completed 12 of 15 passes for 182 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions and wound up with a 139.4 rating. The quarterback Sanchez once served as a ballboy for the Mission Viejo High football team in Southern California was a dismal 18-for-36 passing for 146 yards, one touchdown, an interception and a 58.3 rating.

A surreal moment? Sanchez wouldn't indulge just yet. "It really won't sink in," he said. "Maybe I'll look back on it in a few years and think about it that way. But for now, I've got to just be smart and keep playing."

It took Sanchez and the offense a while to get going, but by the second quarter, he'd hit his stride. After the Jets tied it at 7 on rookie Shonn Greene's 39-yard touchdown run, Sanchez took over at the Jets' 43. On third-and-12, he found Jerricho Cotchery over the middle on a 14-yard completion to the Cincinnati 45.

On the next play, he faked a handoff to Thomas Jones and rolled out to his right. Tight end Dustin Keller was streaking over the middle from left to right, and Sanchez hit him in stride. Keller did the rest, racing into the right corner of the end zone to make it 14-7.

"We had a great run-action and Dustin ran a great route and I put it on him," Sanchez said. "Dustin made everything happen after the catch. All I'm thinking is, 'Just don't miss him.' "

Sanchez didn't miss another pass, hitting on all five attempts in the second half and letting the running game (Greene had 135 yards and a touchdown) and the defense do the rest.

"One of these days, he's going to be the best thing we got on this football team," Ryan said of his quarterback. "Hey, maybe that day is coming sooner rather than later."

Sure looks that way.

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