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Sunday, September 9, 2012
Updated: September 10, 7:20 PM ET
Sanchez reduces Tebow to a prop

By Ian O'Connor
ESPNNewYork.com

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Mark Sanchez rolled left, started to stumble and bumble, and threw the kind of reckless shovel pass that explained why the New York Jets traded for Tim Tebow in the first place. The ball was deflected and intercepted, and just like that the first possession of 2012 summoned every bad memory from the implosion of 2011.

"Stupid," Sanchez called it.

He could've curled up in a ball and pouted over his so-called life. He could've surrendered to the belief that he had no playmakers to work with, and that at some point this season he was destined to lose his job and turn over the team to You Know Who.

Mark Sanchez
Mark Sanchez was 19-for-27 for 266 yards, three TD passes and one interception.

"But I kept my head," Sanchez said, "and it kind of goes as the quarterback goes. If you hang your head a little too low, then guys will start to question."

And yes, they've questioned the quarterback in the past. Maybe a younger Sanchez would've found comfort in another hot dog on the bench, or maybe he would've written up another whiny postgame speech to read to the news media rather than suffer the indignity of the traditional Q&A.

But this Year 4 Sanchez has scars. Even with two trips to the AFC Championship Game in his first three years, even with the kind of look that scores magazine covers and front-page photos at Eva Longoria's side, Sanchez has been roughed up by teammates and reporters and, of course, Tebow-ed by his own bosses.

So he responded against the Buffalo Bills like a guy who has seen it all, a guy who's through being as easily rattled as Santonio Holmes claimed he was when the Denver deal was done. Darrelle Revis and Kyle Wilson took turns intercepting Ryan Fitzpatrick on Buffalo's first two drives, and Sanchez honored those picks by throwing the two touchdown passes that established the early vibe in this 48-28 romp.

As if answering his counterpart with hard jabs in a televised debate, Sanchez threw those touchdown passes on plays directly after moderate Tebow gains out of the Wildcat. So Sanchez didn't merely outplay the starting quarterback of the opposing team; he reduced the other starting quarterback on his own team to a bit actor, a player the fan base wanted off the field.

As it turned out, the Wildcat might've featured one of the planet's most famous athletes, but it amounted to a waste of everyone's time.

Let it be recorded that with 3:07 left in the second quarter, Jets fans grumbled over Tebow's appearance for the first time. Their team was winning, 21-7, Sanchez had moved the ball to the Buffalo 12, and nobody wanted to see him off the field.

Tebow took the shotgun snap, got stuffed on a run up the middle, and immediately exited stage left to loud booing. Yes, Tebow heard regular-season boos before Sanchez did. What odds would you have gotten in Vegas on that?

Sanchez couldn't have choreographed a more favorable opener. This has been advertised as a big season for him, the season after he went 8-8, feuded with Holmes and watched his team come undone over the final three weeks. This has been advertised as a time for Sanchez to prove he can develop into something of a star.

In that context, Sanchez was expected to be handicapped by an offense built to fail. He had his new BFF, Holmes, and nobody else to keep an opposing defensive coordinator up at night. Hey, the Bills deferred after winning the opening coin toss for a reason.

But out of the clear blue Sunday, Stephen Hill and Jeremy Kerley emerged as credible playmakers. Kerley, the second-year man, caught Sanchez's first touchdown pass, a 12-yarder in the corner of the end zone, and returned a punt 68 yards for another score.

Hill, the rookie who managed a mere 49 career receptions at Georgia Tech, was good for two touchdown receptions, including a 33-yarder on the first play of the second quarter. The second-rounder beat the first-rounder, Stephon Gilmore, on that one, and suddenly Mike Tannenbaum's draft didn't look so bad after all.

Rex Ryan promised the Jets would move the ball, and move the ball they did. The offensive line protected the quarterback, Austin Howard (of all people) pitched a virtual shutout against Mario Williams, the receivers broke free in the Buffalo secondary, and Ryan re-established his dominance of the Bills by beating them for the sixth time in seven tries as Jets coach.

About the only Jet who didn't blaze any opening-day paths to glory was Tebow, who lined up in the slot -- as a receiver -- on the first play from scrimmage, and ran an uneventful route while Sanchez was firing an incompletion Hill's way.

The Jets finally unveiled their secret weapon on their fourth play, and the crowd buzzed with anticipation as Tebow lined up in the shotgun. With Sanchez split wide left, Tebow waved both arms in a call for quiet before taking the snap and handing off to Joe McKnight for a gain of 3.

Tebow did contribute a 4-yard run to the Bills' 12 right before Sanchez and Kerley opened the scoring, but for the NFL's MPP -- Most Polarizing Player -- it didn't get any better than that. In the final minutes, with the Jets near the Buffalo goal line and Ryan desperate to make him feel relevant, Tebow replaced Sanchez and immediately was flagged for a delay-of-game penalty.

"We didn't have the right personnel," Tebow explained.

Sanchez re-entered the game after another short Tebow run, and soon enough Shonn Greene was going over the top and into the end zone to punctuate the highest-scoring opener in franchise history.

By a mile, Sanchez was the player most responsible for that record. "When Mark has time to throw the football," Ryan said, "he can throw it with anybody."

He can certainly throw it better than his backup can. Sanchez-Tebow is the most scrutinized relationship in this market since A-Rod signed up to play with Captain Jeter. In the moments leading up to kickoff, the two quarterbacks met up on the sideline for an enthusiastic handshake/hug/helmet bump that sure seemed genuine.

In the end, Sanchez would make a couple of mistakes reminiscent of his careless past, the early interception and the fourth-quarter fumble nullified by a penalty. He's never going to be perfect. Chances are, he's never going to earn a bronze bust in Canton.

But after winning the most important opener of his four, Sanchez did earn some breathing room and some benefit of the doubt. "Remember this feeling today," he told his teammates on the way into the locker room.

As he dressed, Sanchez engaged in some small talk with Tebow; their lockers are side by side. The starter and backup shook hands before Tebow slapped Sanchez's ribs and took off.

They are two quarterbacks, yes, but theirs is not a two-quarterback system. Mark Sanchez took sole ownership of his team Sunday, a team that looks like it actually might have a chance.