INDIANAPOLIS - Mark Sanchez shaved his playoff beard shortly after the Jets' 30-17 loss to the Colts in yesterday's AFC Championship Game. But it wasn't the whiskers that made him nearly unrecognizable in recent weeks.
No, it was the way he was playing. Efficiently, confidently. He was someone who could connect on an 80-yard bomb to Braylon Edwards for a touchdown instead of the flustered, mistake-prone guy Jets fans saw in the middle part of the season.
"Watching the film from these last three weeks, just going back and reviewing the games, I started becoming the quarterback that this team needs," Sanchez said. "I started making the decisions that a quarterback who makes it to the AFC Championship Game makes. I still have a long way to go. I haven't arrived, I haven't figured it out, I haven't made it."
But he did play well in the biggest game of his young career, and he did not cost the Jets the game. He completed 17 of 30 passes for 257 yards and two touchdowns. He threw one interception, a high pass that bounced off the hands of David Clowney late in the fourth quarter when the Jets were trying to mount a comeback.
And he showed that he's capable of taking the team where it wants to go.
"He played a heck of a game," receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. "This was a big-time game and he rose to the occasion. You have to take your hat off to him. Hopefully he can take this experience and build on it and continue to climb as a player."
"Now he's got a taste of it and he knows," guard Damien Woody added. "It's going to be invaluable moving forward to next year. The future is bright."
The present wasn't so bad either. Sanchez looked like a cagey veteran when he used a pump fake to make cornerback Jacob Lacey jump inside and safety Antoine Bethea come up toward the line before unloading a perfect pass to Edwards for an 80-yard score that gave the Jets a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter. He also stood in for a wallop by defensive tackle Eric Foster on his 9-yard touchdown pass to Dustin Keller later in the quarter. Thirteen of the Jets' 17 first downs were on passing plays.
But despite a solid performance, Sanchez clearly was the second-best quarterback on the field. Peyton Manning completed 26 of 39 passes for 377 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. "It's not hard to notice when somebody is on like that," Sanchez said.
Rex Ryan didn't hide the idea that Sanchez's responsibilities in the offense will continue to develop.
"Moving forward, we're going to have a little bit more of a balanced offense," he said.
Ryan also expects Sanchez's development to skyrocket in his second year.
"He knows our offense, he's comfortable, and I think this year when we come back, we're going to be able to hit the ground running, which is a lot different than how we entered this season," Ryan said.
Sanchez entered this season coming out of college early, was picked by the Jets in the first round and was thrust into the starting job midway through the preseason. He ultimately guided the Jets to the AFC Championship Game and gave the team with the best defense in the NFL a 17-6 lead late in the second quarter. What else is there?
"Just winning the Super Bowl," he said. "Other than that . . . We were almost there. Almost there."