Sanchez holds Jets' fate in his hands

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Rex Ryan is the most entertaining act in sports, and one you would book from the Catskills to Broadway. He is an outsized figure with an outsized personality; a human face and voice in a robo-profession that prefers to communicate in automated tones.

But the New York Jets are never going to win the Super Bowl as the Rex Ryan Show -- never, ever, ever. The day they are ready to win their first championship since man walked on the moon is the day Mark Sanchez has a stronger hold on his team than his head coach does.

With the 9-2 Jets preparing to meet the 9-2 New England Patriots on Monday night, the time and stakes are right to remind everyone why a franchise-shaping quarterback is more important than a franchise-shaping coach.

Bill Belichick is the best in the business, and Ryan is the first to say it. But a Belichick with a Drew Bledsoe or another like him is a Belichick who would have won the same number of titles in Foxborough that he won in Cleveland.

Belichick didn't have to find out the hard way, not after Mo Lewis altered the course of NFL history by putting a lethal hit on Bledsoe way back when, forcing into action a scarecrow in pads who was so highly regarded coming out of Michigan that 198 players were drafted ahead of him.

Tom Brady grew from a faceless scrub into the owner of the most famous dimpled chin since Cary Grant, winning three Super Bowls and entering a fourth with an 18-0 record. Brady, not Belichick, is the primary maker of the Patriots' dynasty, if only because the players navigating the blitzes are always more vital than the former Division III linemen who draw them up.

Right after the Jets drafted Sanchez, Ryan told the kid he wanted to form a partnership that lasted 10 years, much like the Brady-Belichick partnership. It's going to take some good quarterbacking and some good coaching to get there, Sanchez said Thursday, "and neither one of us getting the other run out of here. [Brady and Belichick] set the standard for their organization, and we're doing it for ours. We've got a long way to go."

Sanchez has a longer road to travel, if only because he started one season at USC and hasn't finished two seasons in the pros. The quarterback showed his age at his locker, when he talked of the Jets and Patriots representing "two powerhouses in the Big East going at it," before realizing this game wasn't being played at UConn.

No sweat. If that's the worst turnover Sanchez commits between now and midnight Monday, the Jets will take it.

Sanchez was angry at himself for winning ugly against Cincinnati on Thanksgiving night, and admitted "There's no way I can go back to playing like that."

Ryan pointed out that it was a short work week for his sophomore, and even Sanchez recognized that as a lame excuse. "It doesn't matter," he said. "The good ones, the great ones, they don't let that affect them."

So here's the question of the week: Does Mark Sanchez have Brady-like greatness inside him?

Santonio Holmes was asked if his quarterback could someday ascend to that Brady-Peyton Manning-Drew Brees level. "There's no comparison to what those guys have seen, what they've been through, what they've done," Holmes said, "as opposed to Mark being a second-year guy. He's got a lot of work to do."

Holmes' fellow wideout, Braylon Edwards, was asked the same question. Edwards added Philip Rivers to the honors class before saying: "It's going to be tough. If Mark keeps working at it, yes, he can. But if he gets complacent at where he is, especially if we win a Super Bowl this year, then no, he won't."

Edwards is willing to bet that Sanchez won't grow complacent, ring or no ring. The receiver sees a quarterback who is more serious this year, more focused, more willing to pay attention to the details.

Edwards also sees a more confident game-closer, and an emerging leader unafraid to call out a receiver for running a wayward route. This time last year, Edwards said, Sanchez "didn't realize that he's representing the livelihood of every man in this locker room …. This year he understands that.

"He understands that 'I'm young, but I'm the guy. I don't want to use this young excuse anymore …. I'm the leader of this offense and I'm the leader of this team, so I've got to make this situation mine.' That's why we've been better down the stretch of games, in the fourth quarter and overtime, because he realizes he's the guy who has to lead us to the end zone and lead us to the locker room with the victory."

Not Rex Ryan. Mark Sanchez.

Make no mistake: Ryan has done a remarkable job of elevating a downtrodden franchise with the force of his Rex-being-Rex approach. He spoke Thursday of the need to be himself, of his desire to succeed or fail by doing it his way.

The anti-Belichick way. The anti-Coughlin way, too.

Yes, it's worked. Ryan's Jets reached the AFC title game in Year 1, ran a circus-like training camp for an appreciative "Hard Knocks" audience and now take their shot at a No. 1 seed in the postseason tournament in Year 2.

Ryan has made the most of every minute, too, turning his press conferences into comedy-club skits and mocking the owners and general managers who refused to hire him in the past.

But the coach can only move a team down to the 5-yard line; the quarterback has to be the one to punch it in. In Brady, Sanchez is facing an opponent who has won 25 consecutive games on his own turf, a superstar who will go down among the greatest of all time.

Brady is the reason Belichick has those rings Ryan refuses to kiss.

"The guys who are remembered for a long time," Sanchez said, "the guys who have gone down in the record book, are the players who seem to be at their best when it counts."

It will count in a big way Monday night, as good a time as any for Rex Ryan's Jets to become Mark Sanchez's Jets.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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