INDIANAPOLIS -- Tom Brady missed a hell of a game. Rather than watch the New York Jets advance into his own backyard, the quarterback of the New England Patriots took in "Lombardi" on Broadway, enjoyed the play with his supermodel wife and did not even bother to leave early to catch the entire second half.
In fact, Brady left late -- he went backstage afterward to meet with the lead actor, Dan Lauria. Brady was more interested in spending face time with Vince Lombardi than he was in spending TV time with Rex Ryan.
"Everybody prepares differently," Bart Scott would say in the winners' locker room. "Obviously Tom Brady's doing something right because he's got three Super Bowl rings. To each his own."
As it turned out, Brady likely got back to a TV in time to watch Mark Sanchez make a Brady-like play, a pass to Braylon Edwards that will go down among the most memorable throws a Jet has ever delivered, a throw that made Sanchez the franchise's first quarterback to win three postseason games.
A throw that eliminated Peyton Manning and booked another date in Foxborough with Tom Brady.
"I love playing at this time of the year," Sanchez said.
Brady's time of year.
"In the games that mean the most," Sanchez said, "you have to play your best."
No, Mark Sanchez did not play his best Saturday night in the Jets' 17-16 victory, not even close. He looked lost in the first half, looked like a confused kid with a bum shoulder. Mostly, Sanchez looked like a quarterback ready to surrender another season to Manning in Lucas Oil Stadium.
Everything changed in the second half. Shut out in the first 30 minutes, haunted by an interception that cost the Jets valuable points, Sanchez called the one and only play he had to get right.
Adam Vinatieri had nailed a 50-yard field goal to give the Indianapolis Colts the 16-14 lead, to notarize his standing as the greatest clutch kicker of all time, before his fraternity brother, Pat McAfee, committed an absurd gaffe: He kicked deep to Antonio Cromartie rather than smack a line drive at some human blocking sled who wanted no part of the ball.
Cromartie raced 47 yards on the return, leaving Sanchez 45 seconds to work with. The quarterback moved his Jets to the Indy 32 before the Colts called timeout with 29 seconds left and gave Sanchez and his offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer, a chance to chat.
Neither coach nor player panicked -- the Jets had won too many close games for that. Besides, Sanchez already had lorded over a monstrous 87-yard touchdown drive that covered nearly 10 minutes. The Colts were nearly out on their feet.
Schottenheimer had a menu of about a dozen plays to pick from, and he offered up his preferred choice, one Sanchez swatted away. "It's kind of like a pitcher," the quarterback said. "You get a signal and it's not your favorite call, so you shake it off."
Schottenheimer responded by saying something that could get a coordinator fired: "Call whatever you want."
Call whatever you want?
Against all odds, this was music to Sanchez's ears. Schottenheimer and Ryan never would've put this blind faith in a rookie, and here they were one year later, honoring Sanchez's growth and maturity by placing the whole season in his hands.
Edwards swore he could beat the man covering him, Jacob Lacey, and Sanchez put the same trust in Edwards that the coaches had just put in him. "I went with what I felt great with," the quarterback said.
He went with a sideline pass to Edwards, who pushed Lacey, created some space between them and made an 18-yard catch that helped the kicker, Nick Folk, avoid becoming this year's Doug Brien.
With three seconds left and Folk lining up from 32 yards out, Sanchez couldn't bring himself to look. "I was just watching the crowd to see what they would do," he said. "And they weren't very happy, so I knew it went in."
The moment the ball sailed through the uprights, Ryan pumped his fist and Schottenheimer did something of an Irish jig. A booming referee's voice announced, "This is the end of the game," on the Lucas Oil speakers, rattling a crowd that wasn't allowed to relive the joy of last year's AFC title game.
The Jets hadn't beaten the Colts in a game this big since Super Bowl III. Ryan called it "a Herculean effort" and went on about how he had finally defeated his tormentor, Manning.
Yes, it was a magical night to be a New York Jet. Ryan became the first Jets coach to win playoff games in back-to-back seasons. LaDainian Tomlinson ran the way he did in his 20s. Darrelle Revis nearly pitched a Don Larsen against Reggie Wayne, holding him to one catch and 1 yard. And Cromartie earned his keep by filling in for the hobbled Brad Smith on the return, making that upgraded second-round draft choice going to San Diego a price well worth paying.
But in this sport, the winning and losing always gets back to the quarterback. Sanchez is 3-1 in the postseason, and Manning is 9-10. This time around, when they met for a postgame handshake, Sanchez was the one doing the consoling.
"Great job," he told Manning. "You're a heck of a competitor."
"Good luck," the gracious loser responded. "Go win it."
Sanchez will have to beat Tom Brady on the way there. The Patriots were 45-3 winners under the Monday night lights in Foxborough on Dec. 6, allowing Brady to hit Broadway on Saturday night rather than scout the Jets on TV.
Maybe Ryan had it right. Maybe Brady really doesn't study as much as Manning does.
"He'll see enough of us on film," Jets linebacker Jason Taylor said. "I saw 'Lombardi.' I'm sure [Brady] enjoyed it."
The Patriots' quarterback missed a hell of a game, anyway, a game Mark Sanchez would win with a throw he'll have to make a dozen times just to get out of Foxborough alive.