The enigma that is Mark Sanchez took another strange and dramatic twist Sunday in a game that could go a long way toward determining the eventual outcome of a wildly unpredictable AFC East race.
And if there's anyone out there who can explain how a quarterback who can look like the worst passer in the league through much of the game, yet come to life down the stretch and make passes that once seemed impossible, please drop a note in the suggestion box at your nearest office water cooler. Better yet, why not forward your ideas to Sanchez so he might somehow transfer that late-game magic and apply it to earlier stages of the game.
Seriously, how does a guy look so bad for so long -- to the point that you think it's only a matter of time before Rex Ryan turns to Tim Tebow -- and then suddenly do a reasonable imitation of the future Hall of Fame quarterback he went against at Gillette Stadium? Anyone? Anyone?
Here's the latest Sanchez conundrum to ponder: The Jets are trailing Tom Brady's Patriots 23-13 early in the fourth quarter and are backed up to their own 4-yard line with 12:42 to go. Sanchez has done almost nothing right since putting on a textbook opening drive to give the Jets a 7-0 lead. He had thrown an earlier interception on a pass that should have been a touchdown to Stephen Hill in the second quarter. He had botched a handoff to Shonn Greene that left the ball skittering into the end zone, prompting Sanchez to kick it away and take the safety. All he seemed to throw was checkdown passes, and even those weren't gimmes; he couldn't even complete a screen pass to Greene late in the third quarter.
And then, suddenly, there he is, throwing darts and driving the Jets down the field against a defense that mostly had its way until then. A perfectly thrown 21-yard pass down the right side to Hill. A 19-yarder to Jeremy Kerley just inside the left sideline. By the time he threaded a beautiful 7-yard touchdown pass to Dustin Keller, Sanchez had traversed 92 yards and gotten the Jets to within a field goal with 5:44 to play.
"We needed a touchdown, and things were opening up for us. I thought we just stayed with a lot of plays, where maybe they're not open earlier and their defenders make a good play. Sometimes you go through stretches of a game where it's not working, but that's the time to keep your head up and know that one of those long drives could be around the corner and not to tank and not to put your head down and quit."
Ok, so we'll give the Patriots some credit. After all, Bill Belichick is one of the greatest defensive coaches of this or any generation. But this is such a familiar and baffling pattern with Sanchez that you wonder if he will ever come out of it.
Maybe this simply is the way it will be with him. Awful sometimes, terrific other times, and plenty of in-between.
Keep in mind that he's still in his formative years as a quarterback, even though he has been the Jets' starter since his first game in 2009. There are growing pains for even the best quarterbacks. But Ryan has stuck with Sanchez this far, and there's no reason to think he won't keep going with him.
"I think you have to give the opponent credit when those [bad] things happen [to Sanchez]," Ryan said. "I thought he played a good football game against an excellent opponent, but obviously overall, at the end of the day, they out-executed us."
The good news for Sanchez and his team is that they're just a game out of first place. And Sanchez, despite all his earlier problems trying to solve Belichick's defense, did enough to give his team a chance to win.
And he thinks the day soon will come when those results turn in the Jets' favor.
"It's still right in front of us," said Sanchez, who was 28-for-41 for 328 yards, one touchdown and one interception. "We need to learn from these games, dwell on the positives and learn from the negatives. I'm excited about our team and what we can do the rest of the season. We're in a good spot. We'll bounce back."
Only if Sanchez does his part.