Mark Sanchez #6 of the New York Jets celebrates a...

Mark Sanchez #6 of the New York Jets celebrates a second quarter touchdown during their 2011 AFC divisional playoff game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. (Jan. 16, 2011) Credit: Getty Images

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - Mark Sanchez knows he can't take what lies ahead of him for granted.

Even though the Jets' 24-year-old quarterback is about to appear in his second AFC Championship Game in only his second NFL season, he's fully aware he may never get this shot again.

"That's the most important thing, is what's at stake," he said Wednesday. "You can never know. You dream of going to the Super Bowl every year and winning every game, that's how you come in as a rookie. But once you understand after your first season how much hard work it takes, the dedication and grind just to make it to the AFC Championship Game, and then to feel that last year losing, this year it's like, 'Man, we have such a great opportunity.'

"We wouldn't want to feel like that again."

Last year's loss to the Colts is the lone time Sanchez has experienced the agony of postseason defeat. His four playoff road wins tie him for the most in NFL history, and he's only the second quarterback to start four playoff victories in his first two seasons. The other is the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger, whom the Jets will face Sunday night in Pittsburgh.

Sanchez tried to downplay the significance, explaining that he's not even thinking about such things and how "these wins are for us. It's for the Jets. Rex and I and everybody on the team, we're all 4-1 or whatever we are in the playoffs."

But Sanchez's feat isn't lost on Mark Brunell, the 40-year-old backup who's spent 18 years in the NFL.

"It's very impressive for a young guy to do that," Brunell said. "Mark understands full well that he's not doing anything without the other 10 guys really doing well, and he's surrounded by some Hall of Famers. He's got a great line, solid running back corps, best receiving corps in the league.

"So, it's taken all the guys in there to be able to do that, and the last two years have been pretty special."

As have Sanchez's last two games, which came against stiff competition. He threw a playoff career-high three touchdown passes in the 28-21 upset of the Patriots, connecting on 16 of 25 attempts to post a quarterback rating of 127.3 and win in a venue where he played horribly twice.

That came on the heels of his 189-yard effort against the Colts in the wild-card game, capped by that 18-yard laser to Braylon Edwards to set up Nick Folk's winning 32-yard field goal.

"He's got such a grasp of our system now," Rex Ryan said. "He knows how to study film and knows how to study opponents. He's totally committed. He gets excited, as most competitors do. A lot of times, a guy can think he's a good competitor. But when you get on the biggest stage, not so much. He's such a huge competitor, but the bigger the stage, the more he wants to play and the more he looks into it as this is his time to shine.

"That's just the way Mark is."

Sanchez has found that comfort zone, and attributes it to getting his weekly and daily routines down pat. He almost never wavers from his self-assured approach, and it's helped him take much better command of the huddle in his second season.

Sanchez said he gets that leadership quality in part from his older brothers Nick and Brandon, and from his father, Nick Sr., a retired firefighter who attends all his games. That characteristic was ingrained years ago, and it endears him to teammates.

"They taught me to lead from an early age," Sanchez said. "It just seems natural here. You're the quarterback of a multi-million dollar franchise. You're the face, you're the guy, and you need to wear it and own it, and be at it at all times - whether you're at the podium or at home studying your plays, or you're out with the guys.

"You've got to make the right decisions for the team and talk the right way and love those guys around you. So, I guess that's where it all started."

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