- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It's not that important to answer the chicken-and-egg question about what came back first -- the New York Jets' running game, or Mark Sanchez's ability to take a stand and show he deserves to remain the Jets' starting quarterback. The point is, Sanchez made his claim. He tightened his slippery grip on the job -- on a day a lot of the Jets' MIAs came back in from the cold, not just him. Now New England sits just ahead next week, and Sanchez and the rest of the Jets have to prove they can play this way consistently against good NFL teams. Not just teams like the re-tooling Indianapolis Colts.
"Here we come," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "I don't feel like tugging on Superman's cape today." Pause. "But maybe tomorrow," he joked.
Sanchez was never really in danger of losing his job by next week anyway, even if he hadn't game-managed the Jets to a 35-9 win over the Colts on Sunday. He's still the best quarterback the Jets have. And it's hard to forget the way the New England Patriots dismantled Tim Tebow in the AFC playoffs last season, after Tebow pulled off the Denver Broncos' dramatic upset of the Piitsburgh Steelers.
But Sanchez needed a win like this just the same, after the chatter that had been swirling around him for weeks -- even right up to the kickoff of Sunday's game.
Ex-Jet LaDainian Tomlinson said during his usual Sunday spot on the NFL Network's pregame show that he had conversations during the past week with some current Jets who said Sanchez was "pretty much at the end of his rope" and on the verge of losing part of the team because of his lackluster play. And Colts safety Antoine Bethea wasn't being complimentary of Sanchez after the game when he said, "We wanted to put the game in Sanchez's hands and get him to make some mistakes. [But] they were doing a great job of running the ball."
So great, in fact, that Sanchez attempted only 18 passes. He completed 11 -- two of them for short touchdowns -- but his longest completion went for only 12 yards. The Jets won because their long-lost running game finally roared to life with 245 yards rushing -- 161 of them from Shonn Greene. Their pass rush finally stirred, and the Jets had three takeaways.
Sanchez wasn't the story. Yet it still felt like Sanchez's best game in weeks.
"It's not about me," he insisted after the game.
Oh, yes it was -- to a degree.
Because there is no ignoring the fact that, had the Jets lost this game to Indy and rookie franchise quarterback Andrew Luck, it would've been the worst reminder yet that nobody calls Sanchez "The Sanchise" anymore.
And there's no discounting how many of the Jets even admitted that this was very close to a must-win. The Colts came to town with a slightly different glow after last week's come-from-behind upset of the Packers, just days after learning that head coach Chuck Pagano would have to leave the team indefinitely to be treated for leukemia. But they were still a 2-3 team -- one the Jets were supposed to beat. And the Jets were coming off a grating Monday night loss to the Texans in which Sanchez completed only 14 of 31 passes. Then both he and his coach spent yet another week getting grilled about whether Sanchez deserves to hang onto the starting job.
The questions were so relentless, Ryan finally grew irritable after repeated questioning about it on Wednesday. "He's our starter," he snapped. "What do you want me to say? He's our starter. I've put it, 'He's our starter this week' [and] 'He's our starter.' You can go answer 'A' and answer 'B' and come up with 'C' I guess."
But after sleeping on it a night, Ryan opened his Thursday news conference with a preemptive statement meant to draw laughs -- and it did. "[Mark] Sanchez, looking right now, he's still our starter right now, so I just want to put that out there," Ryan cracked.
If Sanchez thinks the weekly heat checks on his job security are funny, he doesn't let on. He tries to be stoic, saying it's "all part of the job." But when asked Wednesday how he blocks out all the distractions, he also said, "I stick around the building. Put the blinders on and put some earplugs in and keep playing."
"We all know it's been hard on Mark," tight end Dustin Keller said. "It's a huge win for him. He did a great job managing the game today. He keeps a level head, no matter what happens or what gets said."
After a win like this, nobody was stepping up to say they were among the players Tomlinson was referring to when he said, "Talking to guys in this locker room, they're starting not to trust Sanchez as a football player. Turning the football over, inconsistent play. And here's the thing: They have to get better play from the quarterback position. Rex Ryan has said it over and over again, but I think they're going to give Sanchez two or three more starts to try to turn this team around, and then they're going to go with Tim Tebow."
It might still happen. Just not yet.
Even Tebow scoffed Sunday, when someone asked him if the 23-yard lob pass he completed to a wide-open Nick Bellore on a fake punt "showcased" his throwing ability, and said, "I don't know. I threw a pop pass. I've been doing that since Pop Warner." And he was right to brush off the question.
The Jets are now 3-3, and heading to New England next Sunday with first place in the AFC East on the line.
Of all the Jets' MIAs that came back Sunday -- the running game, the pass rush, the offensive line, you name it -- Sanchez, more than anyone else, needed this.
He wasn't the star of the game. But for a change, he was nobody's whipping boy.
"Part of the job," he said. "Wins come in all shapes and forms. As long as we're winning, I'm happy."
Mark Sanchez wasn't the Jets' hero against the Colts, but he did his job.