Sanchez starting to look like he belongs

Mark Sanchez completed 12 of 15 passes for 182 yards and a touchdown in his playoff debut. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

CINCINNATI -- This isn't one of those situations where naysayers formulated misbegotten attitudes.

The critics weren't clueless. No, there were plenty of clues about Mark Sanchez scattered throughout the New York Jets' season.

What we saw was the truth: a reckless rookie who didn't comprehend the NFL yet, who was costing his team games and, almost inevitably, the playoffs.

Then how in the world did we get here?

Sanchez is headed to the second round of the playoffs after a 24-14 AFC wild-card victory Saturday over the Cincinnati Bengals in frigid Paul Brown Stadium. Sanchez became the fourth rookie quarterback to win his postseason debut. He was nearly flawless.

"I think he's tired of hearing that he's the weak link of our football team instead of being a part of our success," Jets coach Rex Ryan said.

Sanchez, with a superbly conducted game plan from offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, threw only three incomplete passes. One of them should have been a 41-yard touchdown strike -- except Braylon Edwards dropped it cleanly in the end zone. Sanchez otherwise looked like Chad Pennington, matriculating the Jets downfield by letting the players around him do most of the work.

Sanchez completed a dozen passes for 182 yards and one touchdown with zero interceptions.

Delusional Jets fans might scoff at all the criticism heaped on Sanchez -- from this writer, too -- and claim we missed all the signs of a maturing stud.

Fact is, not even the Jets glimpsed this Sanchez until recently. Behind the scenes, a new player was materializing. We're to believe we finally saw it on display in arctic Cincinnati.

"I see him getting better and better each day on the practice field," Ryan said. "His command of the offense is much better.

"He was all over me on the sideline for calling a timeout. I said 'Settle down, kid. We wanted to call a timeout there.' But he was 'Well, I know the coverage!' Hey, that's great. I was about to say 'It's about time.' "

Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold said they began to notice a difference in Sanchez three weeks ago. What fortuitous timing. The Jets had to win their final two regular-season games to loft a playoff prayer.

"I just feel like the last three weeks have been smarter," Sanchez said. "I've played with the utmost care for the football. I don't want us to get beat. I've seen what helps us win, and that's our running game and our defense and throwing the ball when we have to. But I also know what gets us beat, and that's turnovers. That's been the story for our season."

Four times this year, Sanchez threw three or more interceptions. Believe it or not, the Jets went 0-4 in those games.

But sometimes a switch gets turned inside a young player's head. Perhaps that kind of revelation occurred for Sanchez after months of the Jets badgering him to protect the ball and himself. The Jets had to color-code his wristband to help him understand. His progression went from honors courses to Romper Room.

And now it seems like he's finally gotten it. The Jets have won six of their past seven games.

"I've been spending some time with him, talking to him constantly every day," Jets fullback Tony Richardson said. "When you have the No. 1 rushing team, No. 1 overall defense, those situations don't come along very often. I think he understands that.

"I told him before the game, 'You don't have to have some outer-body experience today. Just go out and play the game, the same game you've been playing since you were a kid.'"

Schottenheimer's oversight has been crucial to Sanchez's sudden maturity.

Schottenheimer devised a Sanchez-friendly game plan that minimizes the risks and emphasizes pitch-and-catch plays that would impress Wes Welker. Most of Sanchez's yards were courtesy of long runs by tight end Dustin Keller after the catch.

Keller had three receptions. One was a bootleg pass he turned into a 45-yard touchdown. Another was a rollout dump pass Keller turned into a critical 43-yard gain in the fourth quarter.

"That's really a long handoff, and I get credit for those yards," Sanchez said, looking a tad guilty. "That's like stealing yards."

The Jets' run game was typically unrelenting. Rookie running back Shonn Greene went for 135 yards, including a 39-yard touchdown sprint in the second quarter.

Schottenheimer, mixing in the run and pass despite the potential liability of a Southern California kid making his playoff debut in sub-freezing temperatures, squeezed 317 of the Jets' 353 yards out of a trio with a combined four NFL seasons.

Sanchez is relying on his support staff. He's not single-handedly losing games.

The rookie has showed some growth -- finally.

Ryan noted he's starting to see Sanchez carry himself with the same charisma the club was drawn to when it traded up to draft him fifth overall.

"He was on fire," Ryan said of Saturday's performance. "There was no doubt about it. The thing I was most impressed with was just that confidence that he had.

"He wanted this game in the worst way. He felt confident. He felt comfortable. Like I say, one of these days he's going to be the biggest thing we got on this football team, the best thing we got. Maybe that day's coming sooner rather than later."