EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- This isn't a coming-of-age story. Mark Sanchez is too young and too inconsistent for us to start making declarations that he grew up before our eyes or that his performance was the stuff of greatness.
But there's no denying that with so much on the line for the New York Jets and with one of the most impotent games of Sanchez's life taking place only six nights prior, what happened Sunday at the Meadowlands against the New England Patriots was a major accomplishment for the second-year quarterback.
"This guy's more confident than I am, which is saying something," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "You've got to have broad shoulders, especially in this media market."
Sanchez outplayed Tom Brady and led the Jets to a 28-14 victory in a crucial AFC East game. A Jets' loss would have put them two games behind the Patriots and Miami Dolphins with only six home games left.
"How many people win their division when you're down 0-2?" Jets inside linebacker Bart Scott said. "That's a hell of a hole to pull yourself out of.
"You wouldn't have been able to go to the grocery store without being hit by eggs if we'd have lost this one."
On a short week, the Jets appeared to be a lousy bet to win. Patriots coach Bill Belichick seemed to have his team in mid-dynasty form. They were coming off a sometimes-dominant display against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Sanchez didn't blink. He merely had his greatest game as a pro. He threw three touchdowns for the first time, posted a career-high 124.3 passer rating and didn't commit a turnover.
He was in command, a word that would have been absurd to describe how he played against the Baltimore Ravens last Monday night. He looked lost. He threw for 74 yards and conducted zero touchdown drives in a 10-9 loss.
"It's tough when you lose that first game," Sanchez said. "It feels like you're 0-10. It was nice that it was a short week so we could play as soon as possible. This game couldn't come soon enough."
The Jets seemed destined for another long day early in the second quarter.
Lopsided to say the least, the Patriots were up 7-0 and had the ball for 15 minutes, 41 seconds. The Jets had one three-and-out possession for 62 seconds.
Sanchez patrolled the sideline, trying to pick up his offensive mates for almost a full quarter.
"It seemed like a lifetime until we got the ball back," Sanchez said. "Boom, the first quarter was gone."
Hope, however, was not. Unless you were at practice Friday and witnessed Sanchez making all the right reads and delivering pinpoint passes, as several of his teammates claimed, there was nothing you could've seen to indicate what was to come.
Sanchez marched the Jets down the field -- 12 plays, covering 77 yards -- to tie the score. There wasn't much ground and pound. Sanchez converted three third downs, hitting Braylon Edwards each time. The last was a 10-yard touchdown strike.
The Jets failed to score a touchdown against the Ravens and certainly wouldn't have imagined amid their preseason bluster they would need to wait 5 1/2 quarters to break the goal line. When they finally did, the pressure was lifted.
Said receiver Jerricho Cotchery: "Once we got that touchdown, 'There it is. That's how we're supposed to be. That's how we're supposed to move the ball. Now let's go. Let's move on them. Lock in, fellas. Let's move these chains and put touchdowns on the board.' "
The Jets converted one third down against the Ravens and had six first downs all game.
They had 10 first downs by halftime Sunday. They finished with 23.
"I told the guys there was nothing that could stop us, nothing that could stop us from getting first downs," Sanchez said. "That's the way you have to think."
When Brady and Randy Moss victimized a gimpy Darrelle Revis for a 34-yard touchdown with 53 seconds left in the first half, Sanchez showed remarkable composure. The Jets started on their own 20-yard line. Sanchez got them in position for a 49-yard Nick Folk field goal as time expired to make the score 14-10.
The Jets owned the second half. Despite having Brady, Moss and Wes Welker, the Patriots gained only 80 yards of total offense against a defense that was without Revis and nose tackle Kris Jenkins. Brady threw a pair of interceptions, one of which wasn't his fault, and coughed up a fumble when Jason Taylor engulfed him late in the fourth quarter.
Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, meanwhile, kept pushing and wasn't afraid to put the game in Sanchez's hands. Sanchez spread the ball all over the field and kept it moving forward.
On a third-quarter drive with All-Pro center Nick Mangold out with a shoulder injury, Sanchez drove 70 yards on six plays, hitting Cotchery for a 2-yard touchdown and following up with a two-point conversion toss to Edwards.
In the fourth quarter, Sanchez found Dustin Keller for a 1-yard touchdown.
For the game, Sanchez was even more phenomenal on second down than he was on third. He went 11 of 12 for 82 yards and six first downs.
"We feel in a rhythm," Edwards said. "We feel like right now what we're calling, we're operating at a high level. We're doing the things we did in practice."
Edwards added this wasn't an occasion for the Jets to pop champagne corks.
There was a prevailing notion in the locker room after that they did what they were supposed to do because they're a great team that should be able to beat other great teams at home.
But there's no debating that being able to count on their young quarterback will make those expectations legitimate.
"We never stopped believing," Ryan said. "We know this is the guy that's going to do it for us. We've been seeing it all training camp. Tonight we saw it. He was on the money with almost every throw."