- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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Mark Sanchez must be wondering whether there are Tebow-maniacs working in the NFL office, because the New York Jets' 2012 schedule -- released Tuesday night -- reads like a sinister plot to create a quarterback controversy between him and Tim Tebow.
The Jets face some of the best defenses, some of the best defensive players and some of the best defensive minds in the league over the first five weeks of the season. If Sanchez stumbles, creating an opportunity for Tebow, it will happen early because this isn't what you'd call a quarterback-friendly stretch of games.
They open against the Buffalo Bills, who figure to be much improved with the addition of free-agent stud Mario Williams. Based on the Jets' current depth chart, the man responsible for blocking Williams is right tackle Wayne Hunter, whose frequent mistakes last season nearly put Sanchez in the hospital.
What you have there are teams that ranked first, sixth, second and fourth, respectively, in scoring defense last season.
Can it get any tougher for Sanchez? He might have thought he was on easy street when he received a three-year contract extension, but along came Tebow and the Tebow hysteria and the constant chatter of a potential quarterback controversy.
It seems that each day, an opposing player or a former player-turned-commentator takes a shot at Sanchez, predicting doom. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said last week that he feels sorry for Sanchez, claiming it will be difficult for him to cope with Tebow's enormous popularity.
Imagine what Roethlisberger must be thinking now, looking over the Jets' first five games. By the time Sanchez returns home after a two-game road stretch in Pittsburgh and Miami, he could be playing for his job against the likes of Patrick Willis and the Niners' nasty defense.
Rex Ryan considered the early part of the schedule.
"Buffalo is much improved, and they've got the big pass-rusher coming in," he said. "[We go] on the road in Pittsburgh. Miami is never easy, especially that time of year. Then you have San Francisco and Houston, back to back, two of the most physical teams in the league. It's definitely a tough stretch."
Ryan countered that by mentioning his team's penchant for fast starts (a 7-2 record over the past three Septembers) and its planned return to Cortland, N.Y., for training camp. The Jets didn't make it to Cortland last summer because of the lockout; now they expect the three-week getaway to be the magic elixir for their well-documented chemistry problems.
They can't afford a slow start, least of all Sanchez, who will have chants of "Tebow!" ringing in his ears if he doesn't play well.
On the flip side, if Sanchez navigates the early part of the schedule, he will have conquered the beast before Halloween. In theory, he'd be home free.
The overall schedule isn't brutally tough. Statistically, it's ranked 20th in difficulty, based on opponents' 2011 results. Once the Jets clear the first five games, only one 2011 playoff team remains -- the New England Patriots, whom they face twice, including Thanksgiving night at MetLife Stadium.
"Oh, man, that's a beauty, there's no doubt," Ryan said.
Things could get hairy in December, when they have three road games in a four-game span. Ryan looked at the bright side, noting the first two -- Jacksonville and Tennessee -- should be good- to decent-weather games. They also catch a break with the San Diego Chargers coming from the sunny West Coast to play a December night game in New Jersey.
The Jets play four prime-time games, down from five last season, but they were bound to lose something after last season's disappointment. All things considered, four night games is decent exposure for an 8-8 team.
For the Jets, there's a lot to like about the schedule. The bye falls in the middle of the season, there are no short-week road trips (see last season) and they get to play the NFC West, which is never a bad thing.
But the real story of this schedule is the first five games. It sure looks like the folks in the league office got caught Tebowing.
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1dEric D. Williams