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Sanchez's season on the line vs. Jags

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- If Mark Sanchez is playing for his career Sunday, he'll be in the ideal place -- Jacksonville.

He'll be away from the New York venom, facing a benign Jaguars defense. He may not have to deal with the Tebow Factor because America's Most Famous Backup -- Jacksonville's favorite son -- could be inactive with a rib injury.

In the crowd will be a familiar face: Mark Brunell, his former understudy/mentor, who lives in the Jacksonville area.

Everything is in place for Sanchez 2.0. If the New York Jets quarterback tosses a couple of water-balloon interceptions, as he did last week, he probably will deserve a permanent place on the bench. No excuses.

On Sunday, Sanchez will be on a 100-yard leather couch, his mental state and body language studied by the armchair psychologists staring into their flat screens at home. It will be the 60th start of his career. If he wants to make it to 61, he needs to seize his second chance.

"When you get real close to losing something important, you realize how much value it has," Brunell told ESPNNewYork.com. "Mark Sanchez does not want to feel like he felt last Sunday."

Brunell and Sanchez, teammates in 2010 and 2011, were extraordinarily close. They vacationed together, took hunting trips and just plain hung out a lot, with Sanchez spending off days at Brunell's house. Heck, he even helped Brunell's kids with their homework.

This has been a turbulent season for Sanchez, 26, and he could use a sage like Brunell in his football life. For the first time in his career, he's the oldest in the quarterback room, flanked by a cult figure (Tim Tebow) and the new fan favorite (Greg McElroy).

Sanchez misses the gray-haired Yoda who has watched from afar as his young protégé has struggled amid the crucible of an intense season.

"You knew it was going to be tough," Brunell, 42, said. "I don't want to take anything away from Tim, but with all the media attention, a press conference for the backup quarterback, Tebow-mania -- you have a young quarterback, your franchise player, and you're adding a lot of pressure to an already high-pressure situation.

"You want your quarterback to flourish and blossom and mature, and you bring in, I'm not going to say 'distraction,' but you create an environment where it's tough for that to happen. If I were a GM, I'd want Tim on my team. But as far as the quarterback room, it's very unique. I don't want to say it was a bad decision, but for Mark, it was a difficult situation."

Whether it was the Tebow Factor or a lack of offensive weapons or just poor decision-making -- or a combination of all three -- Sanchez has struggled. The recent trend: one good game, two bad ones. Another good one, two more bad ones.

Rex Ryan finally got fed up, benching Sanchez last Sunday in favor of the untested McElroy. After three days of suspense, Ryan recommitted to Sanchez, but it's a short leash.

If Sanchez makes a couple of knucklehead turnovers, it likely will result in a permanent gig with the clipboard, $8.25 million guarantee be damned. He'll get paid nice money next season no matter what, but Ryan will cut bait if he thinks Sanchez will get him fired.

Now Sanchez will find out how the defense feels on a weekly basis, playing with little margin for error. Welcome to Club Stress, kid.

Publicly, Sanchez said all the right things, vowing to use the temporary benching as a learning experience. Privately, he has promised his teammates he will play better. They say he seems more determined than ever.

"He's a fighter," guard Matt Slauson said. "I have all the confidence in the world that he's going to bounce back and play well."

Defensive tackle Mike DeVito said, "We've seen him in some of the biggest games and how well he's played, so I don't doubt him."

Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine backed Ryan's decision, saying Sanchez has "earned the right to bounce back."

The rah-rah stuff sounds good, but let's see him do it. Let's see him play efficiently against the league's 31st-ranked defense.

The Jaguars (2-10) can't stop the run, can't rush the quarterback and can't defend the pass. The Jets should be able to control the line of scrimmage, playing their usual game of ugly ball. Sanchez won't throw more than 25 times if offensive coordinator Tony Sparano gets his way.

Sanchez looked shot last week, and it rubbed off on the players around him. They can talk all they want, saying how much they still believe in him, but the truth is told on the field. The entire offense perked up when McElroy entered the game, and that was no accident. We'll find out soon enough if the players have given up on Sanchez.

Brunell gave Sanchez a pep talk during a Monday night phone conversation, telling him about the time he got benched with the Washington Redskins in 2004. Brunell still believes Sanchez can be a successful quarterback for many years, and he thinks last Sunday's benching could be a turning point.

"It could turn out to be the best thing for him," Brunell said.

After three seasons on easy street, Sanchez – no longer the fair-haired boy – has to fight for his job like everybody else.

"I knew at some point before I died, I'd start at quarterback again," he said. "I'm just glad it's this week."