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Sanchez transformed from spectator to winning QB

Quarterback Mark Sanchez #6 of the New York

Quarterback Mark Sanchez #6 of the New York Jets walks off the field after the AFC Divisional Playoff Game against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium on January 17, 2010 in San Diego, California. The Jets defeated the Chargers 17-14. Credit: Getty/Donald Miralle

SAN DIEGO - The eye black hadn't been removed. Neither had the feeling that everything in his career was going absolutely perfectly. The fates brought Mark Sanchez to Qualcomm Stadium again, but this time it was as a player, not just a spectator.

He was here 12 months ago, here by the Pacific, here about 60 miles from where he grew up in Orange County, a college kid about to turn pro, wondering what the future held. And now, one victory from the Super Bowl in his rookie season, Sanchez knows. So does everyone else.

He's a first-year quarterback in control of the Jets' offense and his emotions. A first-year quarterback who had memories of a playoff game from last season and has been making his own memories in playoff games this season, especially the Jets' 17-14 divisional-round win over the Chargers yesterday.

"It seems like a lifetime ago I was here for this game," Sanchez said. He meant last year's wild-card game between the Chargers and Indianapolis Colts.

One team the Jets took care of on a cool California afternoon; the other they'll face Sunday for the AFC championship.

"[Peyton] Manning and Philip Rivers,'' Sanchez said of the quarterbacks in that game. "I saw the Chargers win in overtime, and I was sitting way up at the top, right near the scoreboard.''

Now, after doing just enough - completing 12 passes in 23 attempts, one of those a 2-yard TD pass to tight end Dustin Keller for the Jets' first touchdown - he's sitting, well, not quite on top of the world, but in a place where he can imagine what it's like.

"You judge quarterbacks on whether they win,'' Jets coach Rex Ryan said when asked what kind of game Sanchez had. After all, his passer rating was a mediocre 60.1. In the first quarter, he threw only three passes and completed one. But he won.

"We know he's a rookie,'' Ryan said, "but we look at him now like he's not a rookie anymore. He's just our quarterback.''

Last year, he was just a fan.

"I was in town,'' said Sanchez, then still enrolled at USC. "I knew there was a game, Colts and Chargers. I wanted to see what playing in this atmosphere was like. It was a good experience. The stadium was rocking.''

A few months later, the Jets traded up to fifth in the first round of the NFL draft and selected Sanchez. "I am so thankful,'' he said. "I keep counting my blessings.''

And counting on his offensive line and running backs.

"We wanted to dominate the line of scrimmage,'' Sanchez said, "and I absolutely felt we did that.''

Sanchez beat Carson Palmer and the Bengals last week in the wild-card game. Sunday it was Rivers and the Chargers. Next comes Manning and the Colts.

"You don't have to do it yourself,'' Sanchez said. "You just rely on guys around you. Just lock it. The coaches want to make sure I'm comfortable.''

When someone wondered if Sanchez can believe he is one step from the Super Bowl, he said: "Don't change a thing. Wearing the same stuff. Going to the same places to eat and study like crazy.''

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