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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- It was a rare display of emotion by old-school Tony Sparano, who pumped his fist and high-fived Rex Ryan on the New York Jets' sideline. It came in response to one of his best play calls of the season, a draw play that fooled the St. Louis Rams for a touchdown -- a 5-yard run by Bilal Powell.
The call was emblematic of a shift in the play calling last week. The game plan was straight out of 2009, Mark Sanchez's rookie season: quick throws, conservative plays in the red zone and rollout passes to accentuate his ability to throw on the run.
Obviously, the strategy worked. It served as a road map for Sanchez, who needed to find a safe, comfortable place after three straight games in which he threw a killer interception in scoring territory.
|Can Mark Sanchez save the Jets' season?|
It will be fascinating to see how the Jets manage Sanchez Thursday night against the New England Patriots at MetLife Stadium. As much as they'd like to duplicate the St. Louis plan, confining him in a quarterback cocoon, they have to know it won't work against the Patriots.
They need more than a game manager to beat the Patriots; they need a game changer. The Jets can't play scared, as they did in the final two minutes of regulation in the first meeting. They have to play the way they did in the first 58 minutes, trusting Sanchez enough to let him attack the Patriots' porous secondary.
At 4-6, the Jets need Sanchez to save the season.
"I think they'll make a conscious effort to protect the quarterback and try to get after the back four," said an opposing personnel executive, who has scouted the Jets and Patriots. "I thought they kind of did that last time."
Sanchez threw 41 times for a season-high 328 yards, his second straight 300-yard game against the Patriots. He got hot in the second half and overcame a 16-7 deficit, but they missed a chance to deliver the knockout punch in the fourth quarter, settling for a field goal when they needed a touchdown to beat Tom Brady. They lost in overtime 29-26, the start of a three-game losing streak.
It was the kind of conservative play calling that dogged Sparano during his years with the Dolphins. You can beat the Rams by playing it safe, but you can't beat Brady & Co. with that approach. The Patriots (7-3) have won four straight, averaging 42.5 points per game during the streak.
Yes, the Jets' defense has improved in recent weeks, but it would be a stunner if they hold New England to fewer than 27 points -- yes, even with Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski out with a broken forearm.
Now, more than ever, they need a command performance from Sanchez.
"I've always said, when these big games come along, that's when he plays his best -- when our backs are against the wall," tight end Dustin Keller said.
The Jets' margin for error has shrunk more than Ryan's waistline. They probably have to win at least five of their last six games to stay in the playoff conversation, and the toughest challenge on the schedule -- by far -- is the Patriots.
Fortunately for the Jets, Sanchez has a mostly positive history against the Patriots, who have become known as a quarterback's best friend. They've allowed 21 touchdown passes, equaling Brady's total, and they yield 290 passing yards per game, 30th in the NFL.
The Patriots also employ a bend-but-don't-break style, rarely blitzing. That plays to the Jets, who have struggled against teams that bring extra pressure.
"They are who they are: They use very few exotic (schemes)," guard Matt Slauson said. "They want to line up and say, 'Come and get us.' "
But there's a method to Bill Belichick's madness, as the Patriots' soft pass defense is offset -- somewhat -- by their penchant for creating turnovers. They have 27 takeaways, including a remarkable 14 fumble recoveries. Defensive end Rob (Jets Killer) Ninkovich is a strip sack waiting to happen.
"Our strategy against Sanchez was, 'Keep everything in front of us and let him drive the field, because he'll eventually screw it up,' " said a former Patriots assistant coach, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
That strategy worked in the Week 7 meeting. For the most part, Sanchez played well, making only two mistakes. But they were costly -- an interception at the Patriots' goal line and a lost fumble in overtime, forced by Ninkovich on a strip sack.
Ball security is an absolute must for Sanchez, who has 13 turnovers in 10 games. That's not terrible, considering his suspect supporting cast, but it's not good enough to beat the Patriots.
"They try and outlast teams until the other guys make the mistake," Sanchez said.Last time, he obliged, with some help from his coaches, who didn't trust Sanchez to finish the job. This time, they have to put the ball in his hands and let him play the position. These aren't the Rams.