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Jets know this opportunity doesn't come along often

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

SAN DIEGO - Tony Richardson phoned his good friend Tony Gonzalez the other day, just checking in to see what was going on with his former Kansas City teammate - the guy who burned the Jets with a game-winning touchdown reception with 1:38 remaining a month ago.

"He was somewhere on the beach," the veteran fullback said of the Atlanta tight end.

But Richardson isn't ready to join Gonzalez and start enjoying the offseason just yet, not with a Super Bowl run well within sight for a team that has won six of its last seven games.

The Jets are aware of the rare opportunity they face and are amped up for the stiff challenge ahead of them in Southern California today.

If they can pull off their second postseason upset in successive weeks and take down the second-seeded Chargers - who have won their last 11 games en route to a 13-3 record - in an AFC divisional-round game at Qualcomm Stadium, they'll play for the AFC title for the first time in 11 years.

"That's great, man," tackle Damien Woody said. "That means we would just get one step closer to our goal and that's winning a championship. We know what's at stake. It's just an exciting part of the year. Everybody else is sitting at home watching us play, and we couldn't ask for anything more than that because, trust me, I've been doing a lot of watching of other teams for the past few years now. So it feels good to be able to be in a situation like this where everybody is watching us."

All eyes certainly will be on the Jets' rookie quarterback, who's making his first start as a pro in his native Southern California. Mark Sanchez returns close to his roots, a little more than an hour trip down the San Diego Freeway from Mission Viejo High School, the place where he made a name for himself before heading off to USC.

Sanchez is playing as efficiently as he has all season, riding a season-high streak of three games without a turnover. He completed 80 percent of his passes in the playoff victory over the Bengals, establishing a franchise postseason record. His 139.4 passer rating was the highest of his career, ranking second in Jets playoff history.

With the Jets going up against a team that averages 28.4 points per game, they'll probably need more of the same from the $50-million face of the franchise. But the last thing he can afford to do is get caught up in the Southern California hoopla.

"There will be a ton of family there," Sanchez said. "It's always fun to go and play for them, just to see a bunch of people that I haven't seen in a while that I won't see until the offseason - hopefully a few weeks away. It's going to be a special [day]. At the same time, just like last week, there's always something that could be a distraction, whether it's going home or it's playing against somebody you grew up idolizing in Carson Palmer.

"Those kinds of things happen. With the playoffs, there is always some side story, something that can get you off track. It's one thing to show respect and show that I'm appreciative that the fans will be there, people that I know. But at the same time, we have to win a football game. That's our real focus."

As is slowing down San Diego's potent offense. The Chargers have scored at least 20 points in 22 consecutive games, the NFL's longest active streak. Their offense resembles a full-court pickup basketball game, with quarterback Philip Rivers gobbling up huge chunks of yardage on hookups with his tall, talented receiving corps.

Wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd, tight end Antonio Gates and running backs Darren Sproles and LaDainian Tomlinson give the Chargers an assortment of weapons that will test the Jets' top-ranked defense and league-best passing defense.

"This game is definitely on us defensively," linebacker Calvin Pace said. "We are going to have to take our level of play up way more than we did last week. And that's cool. That's what we get paid to do. We've got to go out there and make some plays, stop the running game and no big plays. It sounds simple, just laying it out like that. But that's what we need to do for us to be able to come out and play in the AFC Championship Game."

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