So are the rest of the New York Jets, who are no longer an overlooked team after dismantling the AFC North champions twice within a week.
Any more doubters?
With their rookie quarterback playing mistake-free, the Jets turned their surprising playoff appearance into a long-running production Saturday. Sanchez threw a touchdown pass, and the NFL’s top running game took it from there, setting up a 24-14 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
“It’s pretty special,” Sanchez said. “It’s got nothing to do with me.”
Actually, the Jets’ first playoff win since 2004 had everything to do with him.
Playing in single-digit wind chills against a defense that tried its best to put the game in his hands, Sanchez went 12 of 15 for 182 yards and a stratospheric passer rating of 139.4.
“He had the eye of the tiger today and he was ready to get out there and throw it around,” coach Rex Ryan said. “I see him getting better and better each day on the practice field. What a job he’s done. I think he’s tired of hearing he’s the weak link on this football team.”
He wasn’t the only rookie making plays under pressure for New York (10-7). Third-round pick Shonn Greene(notes) ran for 135 yards, including a 39-yard touchdown, leading a running game that churned out 171 yards for a rare back-to-back sweep of the Bengals (10-7).
“They might have a chance to make a move,” said Palmer, who was off-target and under pressure most of the game. “Their defense is that good.”
Take Palmer’s word for that.
Cincinnati went to the Meadowlands six days earlier and got flattened. The Jets ran for 257 yards, and the Bengals managed a total of 72 yards, with Chad Ochocinco(notes) getting shut out. Little changed the second time around—Ochocinco had two catches for 28 yards in the rematch.
“This was a great team effort,” said Ryan, who won in his playoff debut as a head coach. “We’re a good football team. If people don’t believe that, they soon will.”
No one should count the Jets out now, not the way their coach did two weeks ago. Ryan thought the Jets were out of contention following a 10-7 loss to the Falcons that was set up by Sanchez’s three interceptions. Then, everything lined up in their favor.
The Colts pulled their starters a week later, allowing the Jets to rally for a win, while four other playoff contenders lost. Then, the Bengals showed up at the Meadowlands and lost 37-0 with little at stake.
Ryan’s father, Buddy, was the defensive line coach for the ’69 Jets, who won the Super Bowl title that Broadway Joe Namath had guaranteed. These Jets came into the playoffs as an off-Broadway show, lacking a star quarterback who could deliver a win.
Sanchez looked like a playoff pro, joining Shaun King(notes), Joe Flacco(notes) and Ben Roethlisberger(notes) as rookie quarterbacks to win postseason starts. At times, Sanchez found himself on the sideline soaking it all in.
“It just blows your mind,” he said. “It’s unbelievable. I hope I have this feeling next week.”
Sanchez was by far the lowest-ranked passer in the playoffs, throwing 20 interceptions in his rookie season—second-most in the league. The Bengals wanted to put the game in his hands. Playing without a glove on his passing hand in an 8-degree wind chill, the kid from Southern California handled it without a bobble.
Afterward, the team present a game ball to owner Woody Johnson, whose daughter, Casey, was found dead in her Los Angeles home on Monday. Johnson’s eyes were red as he left the locker room.
The Jets also had a scare at the outset when punter Steve Weatherford(notes) was ruled out because of dizziness and an elevated heartbeat. Kicker Jay Feely(notes) punted for the first time in his NFL career, averaging 31 yards on seven kicks. He also made 20-yard field goal with 5:47 to go that put Cincinnati too far behind.
“I was so happy that I was kicking a field goal (then) instead of punting,” Feely said. “That was great.”
Weatherford warmed up in the single-digit wind chills, then didn’t feel good.
“I got a little lightheaded and I had an elevated heart rate,” Weatherford said. “It wasn’t life-threatening, but any time it’s your heart …”
The Jets pulled ahead 14-7 by halftime with two big plays off Sanchez’s hand. He faked a handoff and made a perfect pitchout to Greene, who needed only one block to find open space for a 39-yard touchdown run, the longest of his career.
In the second quarter, Sanchez caught the Bengals off-guard. He rolled to his right and found tight end Dustin Keller(notes) running uncovered beyond the secondary. The throw was perfect, and Keller kept his balance for the last 15 yards while safety Chinedum Ndukwe(notes) vainly tried to knock him out of bounds.
Sanchez led an eight-play, 75-yard drive that culminated in Thomas Jones’(notes) 9-yard run for a 21-7 lead late in the third quarter. Benson broke a 47-yard touchdown run—the longest in Bengals playoff history—that got Cincinnati within a touchdown, but Sanchez and Greene turned it on again.
The game ended with a little more Jets serendipity. Shayne Graham(notes), the Bengals’ franchise-tagged player, missed two field goals in the second half, including a 28-yarder with 3:49 to go that essentially sealed it.
NOTES: Greene was the third rookie since 2000 to rush for 100 yards in a playoff game. … Feely had one punt in college and didn’t punt in high school. … Bengals LB Rashad Jeanty(notes) broke his left leg on the opening kickoff. … Bengals WRs Laveranues Coles(notes) (thumb) and Andre Caldwell(notes) (ankle) suffered injuries in the second quarter, but returned in the second half. … Palmer said he’ll have surgery on his left (non-throwing) thumb, which he injured in the fifth game of the season. He wore a removable brace for the rest of the season.