Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez smiles at the fourth quarter success...

Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez smiles at the fourth quarter success of third string quarterback Kellen Clemens against the Bills, Sunday. (Jan. 2, 2011) Credit: David Pokress

First, Rex Ryan played with Mark Sanchez's mind, letting him (and the rest of us) think for much of last week that he might do some passing Sunday.

Then, before the game against the Bills, he told Sanchez he would not be throwing the ball after all, but why not play a prank on coordinator Brian Schottenheimer in the meantime?

"I went over to Sanchez and said, 'Let's make sure we give Schotty a little shot here,' '' Ryan recalled yesterday. " 'Let's line up in empty [backfield], then shift back.'

"That's what we did on the first play. We just wanted to get Schottenheimer's blood going a little bit. Probably wasn't so funny.''

Actually, it is sort of funny, now that we know how the game plan turned out, that Sanchez lined up in the shotgun at his 11-yard line before moving under center and giving the ball to Joe McKnight.

But that was Sunday, when all Sanchez did was hand off eight times - something he could have done lefty, even if his throwing arm were in a sling.

Tuesday, the Jets begin the serious business of preparing for their wild-card playoff game against the Colts, and there is nothing amusing about Sanchez's lingering shoulder soreness.

His coach said Monday, "I think he is going to be 100 percent,'' and Sanchez said Sunday: "I am going to play. It's not a big deal.''

But it is fair to wonder. We lack direct evidence since Sanchez said after facing the Bears on Dec. 26 that he was "very sore,'' then was seen wincing as he rotated his arm in the locker room.

Sanchez didn't sugarcoat it after the Bills game, admitting he still is "pretty sore'' and ominously saying doctors have "bounced ideas around'' about postseason surgery.

Oh, my. This is not what Jets fans want to hear going into what could be a shootout against Peyton Manning's Colts.

"He's ready,'' Ryan said. "This kid is going to be ready.''

But . . . "Is he going to be ready to outduel Peyton Manning? I don't know. I don't know if anybody is ready for that.''

Sanchez had a pretty good game when the teams met for the AFC title last January, completing 17 of 30 passes for 257 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Passer rating: 93.3.

But Manning was 26-for-39 for 377 yards, three TDs and a rating of 123.6 - against a Jets defense that was better than this year's edition.

The good news for the Jets is that the Colts have been hit hard by injuries, limiting Manning's options and compromising their defense, and that their own quarterback - assuming he is healthy - has come far since the eve of last year's playoffs.

"I'd like to think I know a lot more,'' Sanchez said. "Hopefully, I play better than I did last year and take care of the football. I know if we do that, we'll always have a chance to win.''

Sanchez first hurt the shoulder against the Steelers on Dec. 19 but looked sharp in the 38-34 loss to the Bears, completing 13 of his first 14 passes and finishing 24-for-37 for 269 yards.

Alas, his last throw that day was intercepted in the final minute by Chris Harris.

Until Sanchez lines up in his first pass formation in Indianapolis - this time for real - that game-clinching pick for the Bears will be the most recent image Jets fans have of their guy throwing in competition.

It is reason enough to spend the next five days worrying, and wondering.