FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - Mark Sanchez sees the gleam in everyone's eye around the Jets' training facility, notices the extra pep in the players' step during practice.
Sure, the rookie quarterback experienced a carnival-type craze when he played for USC in the Rose Bowl a year ago, thinking, "Man, this is pretty cool," as the B-2 bomber zoomed past. But this? There's nothing like it.
Sanchez will find out Saturday afternoon when the opening kickoff sails through the frigid air at Paul Brown Stadium for the Jets' wild-card matchup with the Bengals. In the meantime, he's getting a bit of a preview from every direction.
"You kind of see it when you say 'Hi' to guys in the morning," Sanchez said Tuesday, "and you see them in cold tub and you see them in the huddle, it's a look, like a knowing, 'This is it, man. These next few weeks can change your life. It changes a lot.' So it's do or die. This is huge for us.
"It's one of those situations where you know you're really fortunate," he added, "but at the same time you want to take advantage of it. You don't want to let anything slip."
At least one thing hasn't slipped lately: Sanchez's confidence level. Rex Ryan thinks it's loftier than it's ever been in his prized quarterback's eight-plus months as a Jet. His numbers the last two games might not jump off the page, considering he's completed 20 of 35 attempts for 163 yards and zero touchdowns.
But Sanchez hasn't had any turnovers in his last two outings, only the second time this season he hasn't given away the ball in successive games. The last time he did that was more than two months ago.
"I know he's as confident as I've ever seen him and not about this particular opponent, but I know he's got a great grasp of our offense," Ryan said. "I think he's comfortable playing with the guys now. This is the second season. So we expect him to be dialed in, and I think he is."
Sanchez said: "I think these last two weeks have really helped, just turning things around, making the playoffs, it's like a new life, a breath of fresh air. We made it out of a tough stretch during the season where I was being careless with the football and now, I don't want to say I've hit my stride. I don't want to say anything like that yet, but I just feel a little more comfortable."
That comfort level led offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to give Sanchez a new piece of equipment, something that makes Sanchez's job easier and shows how well he's learning an offense that's not easy to pick up quickly. He's been outfitted with a wristband listing the plays, and Sanchez used it for the first time in Sunday's 37-0 rout of the Bengals.
"Just because I've learned the plays over the course of the season, it's the right time," he said. "You don't want to use that as a crutch. 'I don't know the plays, so I'm just going to spit something out in the huddle and try to figure it out on the way up to the line.' That's not what you want. Not here. It's too fast. So now that I have a better grasp of the plays, it really helps in just the communication. We get up to the line with more time, and it just gives you more chance to see everything and adjust and make our checks."
There's also another kind of check, one that Sanchez would probably love to cash next month: the share that comes along with winning a Super Bowl.
"This is great and all you've ever wanted," he said. "And to be in the position we're in, I just want to be ready."