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SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

Sanchez's long rookie season capped by trip to playoffs

Quarterback Mark Sanchez #6 of the New York

Quarterback Mark Sanchez #6 of the New York Jets smiles while celebrating their 37-0 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. (January 3, 2010) Credit: Getty Images

Shortly after he decided to leave USC a year early to enter the NFL draft, Mark Sanchez got some advice from his high school coach.

Sanchez didn't think much of it at the time, but he realized the other day that Bob Johnson was spot on.

"I remember coach Johnson telling me, 'This is going to be the longest year of your life,' " Sanchez said of his coach at Mission Viejo High in Southern California. "He was dead on. It's the funnest year by far, but it's long."

How long? Well, remember that 3-0 start by Sanchez? It seems like forever ago.

In between, there was the midseason wobble . . . the meltdowns against the Saints, Bills and Patriots . . . the sliding lessons from Joe Girardi that went hopelessly awry in Toronto . . . the mind-numbing home loss to the Falcons that led coach Rex Ryan to think it was all over.

It added up to a 1-6 stretch that dropped the Jets to 4-6 - and a 5-1 finish that put them in the NFL playoffs.

After all the twists and turns, there Sanchez was last night, throwing darts in the stiff winds and frigid temperatures, operating a highly efficient offense in a win-and-you're-in game.

The longest year of Sanchez's life just got a little longer. The Jets pounded the Bengals into submission with a terrific first 30 minutes, taking a 27-0 lead into halftime on the way to a 37-0 win and a ticket to Cincinnati for a rematch in next weekend's wild-card playoff round.

The Jets' dramatic draft-day trade for Sanchez has paid off with the team's first playoff run since Eric Mangini's first season in 2006.

Fittingly, it was Mangini who played the willing trade partner to give the Jets the quarterback they hope to build around for the next dozen or so years.

"He wanted to be on that big stage," Ryan said afterward. "He wanted this game. He wanted the big stage. Some quarterbacks can't play on that stage, but he isn't one of them."

Sure, Sanchez still is very much a work in progress. But the fact that he has managed to overcome this much this soon gives hope to a franchise that has been so painfully short of that commodity in the four decades-plus since Joe Namath's Super Bowl III moment. "I'm learning so much on the fly," he said. "I feel like I've come a long way."

It really kicked in during preparations for last week's game against the Colts. Feeling a sense of closure with the season nearing an end, Sanchez could feel the vibe from his veteran teammates about what it would take to get to this point.

The Jets wound up beating the Colts, who rested their starters late in the third quarter. Say what you will about the win, but give Sanchez credit for playing with composure and not turning the ball over.

In fact, turnovers have been the story for Sanchez all season. In the 10 games in which he has thrown either one or no interceptions, the Jets are 8-2. They're 0-4 when he threw at least three picks. His interception-free performance last night ensured that the Jets would make the playoffs.

"These are the kind of games that you want to play in," said Sanchez, who was 7-for-12 for 54 yards in the first half. (The numbers could have been even better; Braylon Edwards dropped a would-be 48-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter.) "There are games you're going to need to air it out, but in this one, it was important not to make any mistakes and put your team in a bad position."

The combination was perfect for the Jets: mistake-free football from Sanchez, more pounding from the running game, two dramatic plays from wide receiver Brad Smith in their "Tiger" offense and a smothering defense.

And now it is on to Cincinnati on Saturday for a rematch. The formula no doubt will be the same: close-to-the-vest quarterbacking, bruising running, a few trick plays and more punishing defense.

There's no guarantee it will work as well the second time. But at least they get the chance to find out.

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