- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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East Rutherford, N.J. -- Mark Sanchez wasn't the only reason the New York Jets were humiliated by the visiting New England Patriots on Sunday night with everything they've been building toward since Rex Ryan arrived in New York sitting on a platter, ready for them to take. But the third-year quarterback needed to take a step forward if the Jets were going to finally step on the Patriots' necks and hasten the talk that the Pats' hold on the AFC East is over. But instead, Sanchez regressed.
"I didn't play well enough for us to win," Sanchez said in the Jets' graveyard-quiet locker room after their 37-16 loss to the Pats.
Of all the ways the Jets backslid as a team Sunday night -- simultaneously blowing their chance at the AFC East title and making even Thursday's quick turnaround game against the Denver Broncos suddenly look like no sure thing -- Sanchez's performance was the most worrisome. The same player who made his name as a kid quarterback in big games like this instead came up small when his team needed him the most.
Worse, it wasn't the first time this season the Jets have counted on Sanchez to lift his game, only to find out he wasn't ready to shoulder the load or the added pressure. The same was true when the Jets began the season trying to be more of a passing team. It went so badly, Ryan ultimately declared the experiment over after a 2-3 start. The Jets went back to being a ground-and-pound team and ripped off a three-game winning streak.
Sunday, everything Sanchez struggled with to start the year was again on display against the Pats. Holding the ball too long, overthrowing receivers, gifting two interceptions -- one of them returned for a touchdown -- Sanchez did it all.
Given that he felt like fighting Ryan last season when the head coach publicly spoke of benching his QB and then tried to take away some of his practice reps, Sanchez won't be happy to hear that Ryan disgustedly told NBC's Michele Tafoya that the timeout Sanchez called as the Jets were just about to score a touchdown at the end of the second quarter was "the stupidest play in NFL history" because it helped leave the Pats' Tom Brady with 1:20 to work with. But Sanchez won't have an argument this time, either.
Sanchez still had 17 seconds left on the play clock, and the Jets meant to keep the game clock running. Through his in-helmet headset he could hear the coaches debating whether they wanted to take a timeout, so he unilaterally called it himself -- then admittedly realized he'd screwed up "as soon as I did it."
"A rookie mistake," Sanchez confessed. "That's my fault ... I really hurt the team there. I've got to manage the clock a lot better than that."
Brady responded by marching the Pats downfield for a touchdown and 13-9 lead. The Pats got the ball back to start the second half and scored again with a field goal. Afterward, veteran Jets running back LaDainian Tomlinson admitted the way the game pivoted was deflating.
"You see the difference a great quarterback makes in this league," Ryan said.
There were more brain-lock plays to come from the Jets. There wasn't a facet of the team, including the coaching staff, that didn't break down.
But what made Sanchez's game especially bad was this wasn't some league-best group such as the bone-breaking Baltimore Ravens' defense he was staring into.
This was a patchwork New England unit that was ranked last in the league against the pass and is on pace to break the NFL's single-season record by a wide margin. The Patriots hadn't been able to generate a pass rush much at all this year and had just made the cage-rattling move of cutting Albert Haynesworth during the week because they were stuck in a two-game swoon.
Yet Pats defensive end Andre Carter ravaged the right side of the Jets' offensive line for a Pats individual record 4.5 sacks (New England had five overall). Linebacker Rob Ninkovich (two interceptions, one returned for a TD) looked like the second coming of Tedy Bruschi or Mike Vrabel. And the Jets couldn't take advantage of a decimated Pats secondary that lost cornerback Devin McCourty during the game and began the night having to replace injured safety Patrick Chung with an undrafted rookie playing out of position. By the end of the night, Pats slot receiver Julian Edelman was playing nickel back.
For the Jets and Sanchez, it was humiliating. Ryan, sounding shaken and irritated afterward, groused that the Jets couldn't get the matchups they wanted all night long.
That was true on both sides of the ball.
It will be fashionable now to pummel Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's play calling for his part in the debacle. The Schottenhaters never stay underground for long. But the real threat to Schottenheimer's job security isn't the result of one game, even a game as important as this one.
The bigger problem is the fact that Sanchez -- the so-called Sanchise -- looks as though he has plateaued in Year 3 rather than make the improvement the Jets had hoped.
The Jets thought Sanchez could have a personal breakout year when they threw a big contract at Santonio Holmes and brought in Plaxico Burress -- two vets who've each made a game-winning catch in a Super Bowl. Instead, what they got was a shaky 2-3 start this season and then, when it mattered most against the Pats, Sunday's disappointing showing.
So goodbye AFC East title. So much for the Jets making a case that night is falling on the Belichick-Brady dynasty.
"Everything was set up for us," Sanchez sighed.
After the way the Jets flopped, the Super Bowl talk is dead for now. Ryan mocked his past guarantees before anyone else could even bring them up.
One game is no reason to say Sanchez can't be a great quarterback someday. But combined with how he struggled earlier this year, Sunday's performance was damning enough to say Sanchez isn't anywhere near being great yet.
If anything, he's backpedaling.
Mark Sanchez is regressing, and it was evident in Sunday's loss to the Pats.