EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Mark Sanchez won the game by finishing off a last-gasp drive after a personally lousy week on the hot seat, and that should count for something. But Sanchez is not a fixed quarterback and the Jets are still a broken team. All is not well just because the Jets survived a wounded Buffalo squad that was also playing Sunday to save its season. And so, though Jets coach Rex Ryan refused to appraise his team's performance so harshly, at least Sanchez -- never one to duck responsibility -- was willing to assess things more honestly than Ryan did.
"I'm thrilled about the win, don't get me wrong," a reserved Sanchez said after the Jets beat Buffalo 28-24 with his 16-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes with 1:01 to play. "It's just that I know we can play better than that. We don't need to fight it at the end and grind it out and bite our nails at the end of the game. That's not the way we need to play. And we won't win every game like that. That's what I'm saying."
If you're looking for a reason to still believe Sanchez can yet grow into the franchise quarterback he's supposed to be, his refusal to delude himself about how good he is right now is a good place to start.
Sunday's stat sheet showed Sanchez had just thrown a career-high four touchdown passes. He had just taken the ball with the Jets trailing by a field goal with 5:44 to play and marched them 82 yards for the game-winning TD. The win improved their record to 6-5 and kept them alive in the AFC playoff race. And yet, there wasn't a bit of spark in Sanchez's eyes or jump in his voice immediately after the game. He looked tired, he hadn't showered yet, his eye black was smeared halfway down one side of his face and he was still in his sweat-soaked T-shirt and game pants when he came to the news conference podium far faster than usual.
He looked and sounded a little irked at himself, if anything.
And honestly, it was terrific to see.
When asked if even he knew why he waits until the end of games to play heroically, Sanchez snapped: "Good question."
Later, a few inevitable questions about whether he'd been "motivated" by Ryan's midweek stunt of taking a few practice reps away from him got a mild rise out of Sanchez, too. The ploy was farcical when Ryan did it -- as even he admitted, who else is he going to play? -- and Sanchez was appropriately dismissive of the suggestion that Ryan's tweak had any magical effect on him Sunday, tersely saying, "We've got bigger things on our plate than that" and "I don't know. You'll have to ask [Rex]."
What Sanchez did know was if Plaxico Burress had not pulled off a circus catch with just under two minutes to play and the Jets trailing by three, he would've never had the chance to roll to his right and find Holmes breaking loose in the right corner of the end zone two plays later to win the game.
The situation was third-and-11 from the Bills' 36-yard line, and Burress was running down the left sideline in single coverage when Sanchez threw the ball high and behind him. But Burress made a sensational play by stopping, leaping and spinning 180 degrees from his right to left to haul in the ball with one hand, and then tapping down his toes inbounds. He did all of that though Bills safety Da'Norris Searcy was running step for step with him, and clawing at him as he stretched for the ball.
"He's done a great job of making big plays in big situations," Sanchez said. "I don't think it was our best game, passing-wise. The numbers show that. He did a great job of just staying in it."
The swing was enormous: Instead of having to try a game-tying field goal attempt of about 53 yards, the Jets had a first down at the Bills' 18 and two plays later Sanchez found Holmes in the end zone.
But it's important to be clear that it's Burress' catch that ranks as the play that saved the Jets' season until a bigger play comes along, and not that ensuing TD pass by Sanchez. And again, Sanchez was.
"I don't know if words can do [that catch] justice," Sanchez said.
"We knew it was do or die for our season, and nobody really said anything [before the final drive] -- it was just understood," Jets guard Matt Slauson said. "We just knew we all had to lock in and execute to perfection."
The Jets didn't. Not exactly. Had that last pass to Burress fallen incomplete, it would've been just another wayward throw added to the others Sanchez missed in a scattershot first half in which he finished eight-for-20 for just 66 yards passing. On one particularly bad three-and-out series in the second quarter, he was nearly picked off on all three plays after the Bills had just pulled ahead 14-7. He finished with just one interception but easily could've had three or four.
So Sanchez wasn't about to grab for any vindication or huge share of the glory now, just because the Jets eked out a win, or Ryan stood at the podium praising how "poised" he was and saying what a "stud" Sanchez was. Ryan even dusted off the "Sanchise" nickname again.
Again, Sanchez didn't want to hear it.
The Jets won, in part because the Bills, now 5-6, were occasionally more bent on sabotaging themselves than the Jets were. No one more so than Bills receiver Stevie Johnson, whose Jekyll-and-Hyde game featured a terrific touchdown catch followed by a classless pantomime that was meant to mock how Burress accidentally shot himself in the leg three years ago in a Manhattan bar. The 15-yard penalty Johnson got helped the Jets tie the game at 14. Much later, Johnson also dropped what could've been a game-winning, 47-yard touchdown pass with 31 seconds left after Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick hit him in stride with a perfect pass as he neared the Jets' 20 wide open.
Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, whom Johnson was effective against throughout the day, denied that his heart skipped a beat right then. But that was Revis' pride talking.
Sanchez, who finished 17-of-35 passing for 180 yards, had a more realistic take on Sunday's performance than either Revis or Ryan. Give him credit for that.
But all is not well. The Jets quarterback isn't fixed. Next Sunday's game against reeling Washington will be do or die again, same as the Jets' outlook was against Buffalo. And the questions of whether these Jets are a playoff-worthy team, or Sanchez really is the Sanchise, aren't over. They've just been punted forward another week.