EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Smile, Mark Sanchez ordered his teammates. Have some fun. Enjoy a perfectly fine September day in the belly of the AFC East beast.
The New York Jets had just gone three-and-out on their first possession, their only possession of the first quarter. Sanchez didn't like the body language, didn't feel the vibe.
Get animated, he ordered them.
"We're grown men playing a kid's game," the quarterback reminded his Jets.
Once upon a time, Joe Montana started an epic Super Bowl drive by spotting a celebrity in the crowd, near the exit ramp, a large man with a larger smile.
John Candy. Joe Cool thought that was pretty cool, told his teammates, then drove them 92 yards and beat Cincinnati on a touchdown pass with 34 seconds to go.
No, Jets-Patriots wasn't the Super Bowl, and no, Mark Sanchez isn't Joe Montana. But six days after looking like a frightened little boy on the wrong side of Ray Lewis, Sanchez played a near apocalyptic game for his team while looking and sounding very much like a man.
Relax and play ball, the quarterback told his Jets, simple words on a complicated day. Monday night, after he threw for a grand sum of 74 yards in the loss to Baltimore, Sanchez was cast as the living embodiment of everything that would derail his alleged contender of a team.
Tough week, Sanchez had. Very tough week. When you lose the season opener, he said, "It feels like you're 0-10."
Sanchez would say "there's nothing wrong with going 15-1," and nobody bought it. A rough-and-tumble marketplace tired of beating up on the Mets found a new tackling dummy wearing No. 6. Joe Willie Namath even knocked Sanchez. ESPN's Tedy Bruschi, former Patriots linebacker, piled on by ripping the Jets' quarterback as a front-runner who can't manage adversity.
Suddenly the freshman who had led the Jets to the AFC title game had been reduced to the sophomore who would prevent the Jets from winning the Super Bowl.
Hey, maybe Pete Carroll was right. Maybe his one-year USC wonder wasn't ready for the big leagues after all. Maybe Sanchez, everybody's All-American, was a win-later quarterback miscast on a win-now team.
"You have to have wide shoulders," Rex Ryan said, "especially in this media market."
Sanchez flexed those shoulders, oh yes he did. Wednesday, he made his voice heard in a meeting of the offensive unit. Friday, he was hitting every receiver on the numbers, announcing he was in the zone.
Sunday came and Sanchez didn't back off. Jet after Jet after Jet wobbled to the locker room, trying to fix this ache and that pain, leaving their quarterback to his own devices.
Darrelle Revis, Nick Mangold and Jason Taylor were among the wounded, and the indomitable Revis never made it back. Randy Moss had burned him on a long touchdown pass crazier than any choreographed on a video game, making a comic-book catch -- one hand and one hand only -- while discovering Revis' kryptonite for the world to see.
Within seconds Revis was on the bench, flat on his stomach, while a trainer massaged a bruised ego and an injured left hamstring that will sideline the otherworldly corner for who knows how long.
So it wasn't the pocket that was crumbling around Sanchez. Just the franchise.
But a funny thing happened on the way to an 0-2 start and an all-out news media siege on the Jets' headquarters, where pitchforks and torches would've replaced cameras and notebooks as the weapons of choice.
Sanchez outplayed Tom Brady. The young, handsome quarterback in the middle of Ryan's three-ring circus outpitched the not-so-young, handsome quarterback responsible for Bill Belichick's three-ring dynasty.
Sanchez completed 21 of 30 passes for 220 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 124.3 quarterback rating. Brady completed 20 of 36 passes for 248 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions, and a 72.5 quarterback rating.
Asked to assess the winning quarterback's performance, Brady replied, "I wasn't paying attention much to Mark."
He missed a hell of a game then. Sanchez threw his three touchdown passes to three different receivers. He immediately answered Brady's 15-play, 75-yard touchdown drive for the game's first score with a 12-play, 77-yard drive to make it all square. When Brady tried to grab the game by the throat by covering 80 yards on back-to-back passes with 53 seconds left in the half, Sanchez loosened the grip by setting up Nick Folk's 49-yard field goal.
Sanchez outscored Brady 18-0 in the second half, raging against Ryan's midweek contention that the Patriots would always hold the advantages at the quarterback and head coach positions.
"Maybe they just outplayed us at head coach today," Ryan said.
Or maybe the Patriots went 0-2 at the matchups they were supposed to win.
"There's nothing that can stop us," Sanchez told his teammates in the huddle. "Nothing that can stop us from getting first downs."
Dustin Keller came to play, and so did Braylon Edwards and LaDainian Tomlinson, who must've spiked his Geritol. Antonio Cromartie did a great job on Moss -- even made him a slouch on occasion -- after Revis went down.
But this 28-14 victory was Sanchez's baby all the way. On the run, he threw a Jeter-like flip to Tomlinson. In the pocket, he absorbed a wicked hit from 325-pound Gerard Warren -- "He readjusted my back; that was terrible," Sanchez said -- and yet didn't miss a snap.
On third-and-1 from his own 12 in the third quarter, Sanchez dramatically altered the feel of the game by faking a handoff, rolling left and finding Keller for 39 yards. The quarterback had run the bootleg all week in practice, and this was the first time he actually finished the play with a pass.
"This guy's more confident than I am," Ryan said, "which is saying something."
Was this the best performance Ryan had ever seen from his quarterback?
"No," the coach said, "I think that was against Penn State."
Only Sanchez wasn't some silly college boy Sunday. He was a grown man playing a kid's game in a way Tom Brady wished he had.