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Jets QB Sanchez maturing at just the right time

New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez twirls a

New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez twirls a football during practice. (January 20, 2010) Credit: AP

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - Brandon Moore senses there's something different about Mark Sanchez lately.

And no, it's not that scruffy beard the rookie quarterback has been growing for a month, which he refuses to shave off because Rex Ryan's superstitions are beginning to rub off on him.

"Right now, he's just got this aura around him," Moore, the Jets' right guard, said Wednesday. "He's got this confidence that seems like how you would be when you come back in your second season . . . He knows the plays, he's confident in the huddle and relaying the play to us - how it would be during training camp next year.

"People said this would be like his second season . . . He's been playing with a lot of confidence."

A month after his three-interception performance in a crushing loss to the Falcons, Sanchez continues to ascend. His transformation has been remarkable, going from a turnover machine that was tied for second in the league with 20 interceptions to someone playing more like a seasoned veteran with a wealth of playoff knowledge.

Although his season-high streak of three games without a turnover ended with a horrible interception in the second half Sunday against the Chargers, he's rolling. Sanchez, the fourth rookie quarterback since 1970 to advance to a conference title game, has completed 24 of 38 attempts for 282 yards and two touchdowns in the postseason.

His 92.2 passer rating dwarfs his 63.0 in the regular season.

"There is no substitute for that experience," Sanchez said. "I think the biggest thing that has made the difference in these last few games is knowing what it takes to win and also knowing what gets you beat. Turnovers have gotten us beat. We're 10-0 when we win the turnover battle, and that's the way we've got to play. If that means not throwing the ball, taking a sack, that's what we've got to go with.

"Right now, it's better to be smart than good."

Ryan thinks Sanchez feels more like this is his offense now, and attributes his recent growth to the chemistry he's built with coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. Ryan put his right index and middle fingers together to show the closeness of the two, who needed time to get their communication down and build cohesiveness.

"I'm sure he was pulling his hair out midway through the season like, 'Man, what is this kid doing?' " Sanchez said. "I feel like that's the key, even talking through situations in practice. Before any drill, coach [Matt] Cavanaugh is like, 'What's the purpose? What are we doing today? OK, what do these guys play in red zone? High red, medium red, what do they do?'

"That's the kind of focus I need in games and it's shown these last couple of games that all this hard work is paying off."

Now the challenge is to keep it going against a Colts team that he faced last month, the game he felt he hit a bit of a turning point.

"This feels right," Sanchez said. "It feels good. It feels the way you dream it would feel just growing up. You get to play at Indy again for an AFC championship your rookie year. That's unbelievable. I think the biggest thing is not getting caught up in it.

"We're facing a great team, in their environment and in a tough place to play. So just go play and have fun and do what we've done forever."

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