DENVER -- It was a devastating loss, no doubt, but the New York Jets have a larger issue than their rapidly shrinking playoff hopes. For the first time under Rex Ryan, they have a quarterback issue. It's not a crisis -- not yet -- but there's growing concern about Mark Sanchez.
For the second time in five days, Sanchez failed miserably in the crucible of a critical AFC game. It's one thing when you can't keep up with Tom Brady, but quite another story when you're upstaged by Tim Tebow. It was, to use Sanchez's own word, embarrassing.
Somehow, the Jets lost Thursday night to the Denver Broncos, 17-13 -- a defeat that defied logic -- and everything changed when Sanchez handed seven points to the Broncos with 4:25 left in the third quarter, an interception returned for a touchdown by Andre Goodman.
It tied the game, 10-10, and all Sanchez could manage after that was one field goal in four possessions -- just setting the stage for Tebow magic.
"I lost the game," Sanchez said. "I let the defense down. It's an embarrassing day by me."
Thing is, it wasn't just one day. It was his second bad game in a row, in a season of inconsistency. Unless Sanchez does a 180, the Jets (5-5) aren't going to make the playoffs. He has thrown an interception in four straight games -- five in that span -- and you can't overcome that many mistakes in a stretch run.
Tebow, the quarterback that can't shoot straight, made all the plays and stole the game. Sanchez? He led an offense that produced one touchdown -- and it was a fluke. Guard Matt Slauson recovered a fumble in the end zone, the first time since 1972 that a Jets offensive lineman scored a touchdown.
For the first time in the Sanchez era, it's fair to wonder about him. The Golden Boy has lost his luster. How long before the Peyton Manning rumors get wild?
He was down after the game, so down that he almost seemed to be doubting himself.
"We have playmakers, we have coaching, we have the leadership, we have the ability to play better than this," he said. "We just haven't I mean, I haven't. It starts with me.
"We have a long weekend to take a good, long look at yourself in the mirror and figure out the player you want to be for the rest of the season and move on. But it starts with me, and winning these games."
This time, Rex Ryan went easy on his quarterback, avoiding any scathing evaluations. He didn't call Sanchez's interception "the stupidest" play in football history, but Ryan has to be wondering about Sanchez (24-for-40, 252 yards).
He can't bench him, not for the ancient Mark Brunell, but it wouldn't be a shock if he gives Brunell a few extra reps in practice when they convene Monday to start preparing for the Buffalo Bills. Ryan did that last season as a motivational ploy, and it worked.
Ryan said Sanchez's interception was "a killer." It was his third pick-six of the season, prompting Ryan to say it reminded him of Sanchez's rookie season -- not a flattering remark.
"I don't know how many returns we've given up for scores," he said, "but it has to be a bunch. When you're in a tight game like that, that can't happen."
The only way the Jets were going to lose this game was to give away points, and they did. For 55 minutes, their defense dominated the novelty act named Tebow, who played like a modern-day version of Browning Nagle. Then, on a third-and-6 from his own 25, Sanchez did the one thing he couldn't afford to do.
He forced a pass to Plaxico Burress, reading him the whole time. Goodman read it, snatched the ball and returned it 26 yards for the score.
"I gave them a touchdown, gave them a free play," Sanchez said. "The guy made a pretty good play on it, but the pass wasn't open. I shouldn't have thrown it. It's an embarrassing play on my part. I hurt the team and lost the game."
He gets points for accountability, but accountability isn't going to win a Lombardi Trophy. For the Jets, it's all about the Super Bowl, but they may not finish above .500 if Sanchez doesn't improve.
This was more than just one bad throw. Sanchez demonstrated poor clock management at the end of the first half, trying a quick pass to Dustin Keller in the final seconds instead of taking a timeout. Later, he wasted a timeout in Denver territory, incurring the wrath of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.
Despite many mistakes, including a fumbled kickoff return by Joe McKnight, the Jets should've won the game. The defense was brilliant for 55 minutes, shooting holes in the Tebow legend. All they needed was Sanchez to manage the game and hit a few passes, and it was a happy flight home and a restful weekend off.
In the end, the un-quarterback beat the so-called franchise quarterback, as Tebow led a 95-yard drive and scored with 58 seconds left. Afterward, Ryan praised Tebow's competitiveness and his ability to make plays.
He used to talk that way about his own quarterback.