FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Mark Sanchez is the face of the franchise, and right now his GQ face is sporting a black eye.
Symbolism doesn't get more obvious than that.
The New York Jets got beat up in Oakland, and Rex Ryan got beat up by Joe Namath, of all people, and now they go to Baltimore to meet the defensive monster Ryan helped create. Every season is filled with pressure points, and this is the first for the Jets. The good teams respond; the others let pressure turn to crisis.
What the Jets need Sunday night, what they need more than anything, is for Sanchez to play like it's January.
In other words, he needs to play one of those beyond-his-years games, because the Jets -- no longer a punch-em-in-the-mouth offense -- need some vintage Sanchez to upset the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.
"We've already experienced what it's like to lose on the road and we can't let it happen again," wide receiver Santonio Holmes said. "That's been our identity since Coach Ryan has been here, winning big games on the road."
For the better part of his first two seasons, Sanchez was lifted up by his supporting cast, but now it's his turn -- his time -- to do the raising.
The foundation is showing cracks, which is what happens when your two staples -- running the ball and stopping the run -- become question marks. The Jets are experiencing a mini-identity crisis, with Sanchez admitting, "We're still trying to find our way" on offense.
At a time like this, you need your leader to ... well, lead. Sanchez gives the Jets a puncher's chance because he's being allowed to punch. This isn't the same quarterback -- or the same offense -- that faced the Ravens in the 2010 opener. That was a classic case of micro-managing, coaches filling Sanchez's head with too much information.
Back then, Sanchez didn't know what he didn't know, but looking back, he conceded he was "almost frozen" because he was so inhibited by the too-complicated game plan and the endless stream of dos and don'ts that were whispered into his ear.
This time, the Ravens will see a different Sanchez.
"If anything, at times, I've gotten too comfortable and felt like I can throw anything, but I'd rather be that way than scared to make throws," he said.
This time, the Jets can't afford to genuflect at the altar of Ray Lewis. They need to attack the Ravens, especially their no-name cornerbacks, Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams. This is an enormous mental and physical challenge for Sanchez, especially with the possibility that security-blanket center Nick Mangold (ankle) won't play. But he can pull it off if he brings his postseason poise.
"His confidence level is high, his maturity level is high and his leadership is high," guard Matt Slauson said. "We feed off that."
Sanchez already has two 300-yard passing games, equaling his total from his first two seasons. His accuracy has improved (he's up to 63 percent), and he's doing a better job of finding his check-down receivers against zone defenses. But he's holding the ball too long at times and he's still prone to knucklehead moves -- see last week's end-zone interception.
Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said Sanchez has played well with the exception of about a dozen plays. Ryan rarely criticizes his quarterback publicly, but Sanchez usually gives honest self-evaluations.
"There have been some great throws, and some great reads and great decisions, and then there have been a couple of bonehead decisions that would have made our offense look a lot better and potentially helped us win that game last week," he said.
Bonehead isn't going to fly against the Ravens, especially with Ed Reed in the secondary. This is Sanchez's first game against Reed, who sat out the 2010 opener with an injury. He changes the dynamic of the secondary.
Ryan called Reed "the best safety that's ever played," and he might be right. He's the active interceptions leader (56), only 20 yards shy of setting the all-time record for interception-return yardage. Sanchez can't let Reed make history on him.
Reed's interceptions are like boomerangs, according to Ryan, because they're "coming right back at you" -- a reference to his six career touchdown returns. He's so instinctive that he can drop into a Cover 2 zone and race across the field to make a play, abandoning his assignment. The Jets say he freelances. Not many players can get away with that; Reed can.
"I wish I had another set of eyes," Sanchez said.
The Jets have to deal with Reed and Lewis, and Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata -- four of the best players in the league at their respective positions. But this isn't an impossible task. Just two weeks ago, Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck beat the Ravens with a 358-yard passing day, including three completions of at least 30 yards.
The Ravens will leave some openings. Sanchez has to recognize them and capitalize on the opportunities. This isn't a must-win for the Jets, far from it, but they need to shake Oakland from their system. As Ryan said in a team meeting, "We're not going to let Oakland beat us twice."
It's only October, no time to panic, but Sanchez has to make like it's January.