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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

Best: The lesson is, never give up on Sanchez

Mark Sanchez of the New York Jets throws

Mark Sanchez of the New York Jets throws against the Houston Texans. (Nov. 21, 2010) Credit: Getty Images

Rex Ryan asked fans to stop eating and start cheering earlier than usual Sunday, and most complied, filling New Meadowlands Stadium shortly after kickoff against the Texans.

But the more important lesson of the day (of the entire season, actually) was driven home later:

Following the 2010 Jets means making sure you are in your seat - whether in the stadium or in your living room - at the end of the game, not the beginning.

Tens of thousands of fans were reminded of that the hard way after they left the stadium before the Jets took the ball at their 28-yard line trailing by four points with 49 seconds to play.

They should have known better, of course. The fact that the Jets somehow won, 30-27, on Mark Sanchez's 6-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes with 10 seconds remaining merely was their latest great escape.

But now that this goofy obstacle course of a season officially has evolved from fluke to trend to pattern to routine, let us take a step back and consider perhaps the most improbable aspect of all:

No matter how good your defense (usually) is, no matter how clutch your receivers are, no matter how cuddly your coach is, you do not repeatedly eke out close games in the NFL without a big-play, big-moment quarterback.

The fact that Sanchez has become that after 11/2 seasons is a bit of a shock, given that as recently as opening night, the conservative game plan treated him like the mistake-in-waiting he often was as a rookie.

"It's amazing," 16-year veteran fullback Tony Richardson said. "He's growing up in front of our eyes."

When someone asked Ryan if Sanchez would have won a game like this one last season, he said: "No. There's no way. This is a different guy."

It appeared the matter was settled after a late Sanchez interception set up the last of the Texans' 20 consecutive fourth-quarter points.

Not so. The capper was a perfectly lobbed pass to Holmes over Glover Quin. But the real eye-opener was the completion that preceded it, a 42-yard strike to Braylon Edwards down the right sideline.

"People don't realize, that's a tough window to put that ball in, and he threw a ball like I've never seen before," running back LaDainian Tomlinson said.

Said Holmes: "I am absolutely amazed at the way he's been playing." He added, as did several others, that Sanchez's knowledge of the offense and of video study is unsurpassed.

During practice, Holmes said, Sanchez often can be found not in the huddle calling the next play but running up and down the field reminding receivers what they did wrong.

(The quarterback also is hitting the right notes off the field. After a game that honored the armed forces, he wore a shirt emblazoned with the division in which his grandfather served in World War II.)

Ryan said Sanchez "prepares like a pro. Now he's reaping the benefits . . . We knew when we drafted him, we drafted the right guy. He's going to be the right guy for the next 10 years here."

Sanchez said he calms himself in big moments by singing to himself, clearing his head and focusing only on the mechanics of the situation, not its larger meaning.

It worked. Again.

Oddly, both Ryan and Sanchez praised fans for not giving up on the Jets late in the game. In fairness, they probably were too busy on the field to notice the empty seats.

But fans need only wait until Thursday for another chance to stick around for the inevitable dramatics - and the inevitable agita.

Sanchez offered a suggestion that might avoid tummy trouble: "Eat your turkey on Wednesday, not on Thursday."

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