SAN DIEGO - How utterly absurd is the fact that the Jets are three victories away from winning the Super Bowl for the first time in more than four decades?
Here's how absurd: Just go back to that 31-14 beating they took in New England on Nov. 22 and ask yourself if there was even the slightest chance they'd reach the playoffs - outlasting the Patriots in the process.
The Jets had dropped to 4-6, Rex Ryan was poking fun at himself for crying during a team meeting after a home loss to the Jaguars, and the first-year coach told his players they'd need to win out to even have a chance at the playoffs. And when the Jets dropped a 10-7 decision to the Falcons on Dec. 20, Ryan himself pronounced the Jets' playoff hopes dead.
It wasn't until the next morning, while reading through the newspaper clips at his desk, that he realized the Jets hadn't been mathematically eliminated. Not only that, but they actually were in better position after losing to the Falcons than they were heading into the game.
With plenty of help from the Broncos, Jaguars and Steelers, who flamed out down the stretch, and with a little unanticipated benevolence from Colts coach Jim Caldwell, who made the controversial decision to pull his key starters in the third quarter, the Jets somehow found a way to get into the tournament.
And here they are, still alive with a chance to make history.
Enjoy this one, Jets fans. It is a well- earned moment of hope. With all those grim reminders of post-Joe Namath misfortune - so depressingly summed up by those three awful words, "Same Old Jets" - this run is simply delightful.
If it continues with another magical moment against the Chargers and a run to the AFC Championship Game next Sunday, the ride will last another deliriously enjoyable week. And if . . .
OK, first things first.
Let's see whether rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez can take his team one step further and continue in a playoff lineup that has featured the game's best quarterbacks - from Peyton Manning and Tom Brady to Philip Rivers and Brett Favre to Kurt Warner and Drew Brees.
Sanchez is duly impressed at his ability to hang in with - and even surpass - some of those venerable passers. But it is not enough for the 23-year-old former USC star, who now has had as many NFL starts (16) as he did in his entire college career.
"It's pretty cool, but at the same time, you don't want to just be there," said Sanchez, who has not thrown an interception in his last three games and has thrown only four in his last six. "Just like these [quarterbacks], they don't want to be mentioned with all the other players. They want to win it, just like I do. I'm honored to be here, but at the same time, I don't want to look back and say, 'Man, that was cool getting to the divisional round.' We want to get to the AFC Championship. We want to get to the Super Bowl."
This is just the perspective you want from a quarterback the Jets hope to call their own for the next decade. That blockbuster trade that general manager Mike Tannenbaum pulled off last April already is paying off, and Sanchez is right where he wants to be - in the big game, on the big stage.
It's the kind of moxie that Ryan saw in Sanchez when he worked him out not far from the scene of today's game. It was a few weeks before the draft, and Ryan, Tannenbaum, Jets owner Woody Johnson and a handful of Jets scouts met with him at USC. Ryan knew then what kind of quarterback he had in Sanchez. All that was left was pulling the trigger on a trade.
"It's not easy when you've got the coach, the GM, the owner, all those people watching you," Ryan said. "But he nailed every single throw, didn't miss one. You gotta know what you got in a player, and we saw it right then and there."
And look at him now. Just a short drive south of where the Jets first fell for their soon-to-be-franchise quarterback, Sanchez gets to perform once again. The stakes are immeasurably higher, but the poise and composure will be the same.
Good enough to take one more step in the playoffs? Perhaps.
But even if it doesn't happen this time, there likely will be others for this quarterback and this coach.
Sanchez and Ryan will be no strangers to playing in January.
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