Mark Sanchez coming through in the clutch

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- On most throws, Mark Sanchez is unimpressive. His body language shows he's still learning how to carry himself as an NFL quarterback. Stats would imply his season ended weeks ago.

The reality, however, is that Sanchez has made it to the AFC Championship Game in each of his first two seasons with the New York Jets. He turned 24 years old in November, yet he already has tied the NFL record for road playoff victories.

Mediocre quarterbacks don't do that.

Clutch quarterbacks do.

"He's just one of those kids that has 'it,'" Jets backup quarterback Mark Brunell said, "and whatever 'it' may be is the ability to make the play that needs to be made -- clutch."

Sanchez's detractors don't see anything special, but among others, he's developing a reputation as one of those rare quarterbacks who excels in difficult spots. He can erase doubt Sunday by advancing to the Super Bowl with a victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers and one of the NFL's few established clutch quarterbacks, Ben Roethlisberger.

Like art, the concept of "clutch" is difficult to define, but you know it when you see it. Clutch performers execute when consequences escalate. Joe Montana was clutch. Michael Jordan was clutch. Tiger Woods, Reggie Jackson, Patrick Roy -- all clutch.

Sanchez isn't remotely near that echelon, but some expert observers claim he's getting there.

"It seems like it," Miami Dolphins consultant and two-time Super Bowl champion coach Bill Parcells said. "He's in his embryonic stage. So time will tell, but he's certainly showing some of the characteristics that are vital to that type of player.

"Sometimes with these quarterbacks it's not always pretty. But it becomes efficient."

Sanchez's numbers don't shriek competence. He ranked 25th in passer rating. Only three qualifying passers averaged fewer yards per attempt. Two completed a lower percentage of throws.

But over Sanchez's past 20 games, including the playoffs, he has directed five fourth-quarter comebacks and two more winning drives when the score was tied in the fourth quarter. Two of those victories were back-to-back on the road and in sudden death -- something that never before had happened.

A pair of his fourth-quarter comebacks were postseason games, including the wild-card victory over the Indianapolis Colts two weeks ago. He took the Jets 40 yards on five plays, completing all three of his passes for 38 yards. He feathered a beautiful pass up the right sideline to Braylon Edwards at the Colts' 14-yard line, setting up Nick Folk's point-blank field goal as time expired.

Clutch? You betcha.

"Sanchez qualifies in the discussion for sure," noted quarterback guru Sam Wyche said. "Their record and the fact they have prevailed in this single-elimination tournament tells me he's had some clutch plays in 2010. There's no way a quarterback can be off much and get this far in the playoffs."

Wyche knows a little about clutch. He was the San Francisco 49ers' passing game coordinator for Montana's first four NFL seasons. Wyche later watched from the Cincinnati Bengals sideline when Montana orchestrated one of the most sublime clutch drives of all time to win Super Bowl XXIII.

Wyche explained clutch as a combination of attributes a quarterback must possess when the margin for error is skinniest. The quarterback must be poised, have the rules mastered, be mindful of field position, be skilled at clock management and be in command of his teammates.

"Clutch means making quicker decisions, generally unforgiving decisions," Wyche said. "You're at the end of the game. You don't have the second half to come back and rebound.

"In a time squeeze with two options -- throw the ball away or try to get it into a tight hole -- who makes the right decision?"

Another clutch quality is raising the performance level when it's essential.

Sanchez's 2010 regular-season stats were ordinary, and in many cases below average. He completed 54.8 percent of his throws, averaged 6.6 yards per attempt and tossed 17 touchdowns with 13 interceptions. His passer rating was 75.3, lower than Chad Henne's. The Dolphins benched Henne twice because of lackluster play.

A look at Sanchez's effectiveness in key situations indicates an even shakier quarterback. Among those who threw at least 10 times in the regular season, ESPN Stats & Information showed, Sanchez's passer rating was 48th in the fourth quarter and overtime, 38th on third down and 27th in the red zone.

But in Sanchez's five career playoff games, he has completed 60.5 percent of his throws, is averaging 7.4 yards per attempt and has seven touchdowns with three interceptions.

His 92.2 career postseason passer rating -- accumulated entirely on the road -- is 22.0 points higher than his regular-season rating.

Jets head coach Rex Ryan said that when it comes to being clutch "you either have it or you don't" and that Sanchez probably had it as a kid, regardless of the sport he tried "because the great ones, the competitors, find ways to win, and I think Mark is that kind of guy."

Back in November, with the Jets on a death-defying win streak, Ryan was asked about Sanchez's success. The Jets notched consecutive overtime road victories and a miracle against the Houston Texans at the Meadowlands, where Sanchez drove the Jets 72 yards for the winning touchdown in just 45 seconds. Sanchez delivered a dazzling 42-yard strike to Edwards along the right sideline and a perfect 6-yard toss to Santonio Holmes in the left corner of the end zone one play later.

"It doesn't get too big for him," Ryan said a few days later. "The stage here, he plays on this stage every week and he can handle it, where a lot of guys can't. A lot of guys can be great quarterbacks, but on this stage, not so fast."

The Steelers have one of those quarterbacks, too.

Roethlisberger owns two Super Bowl rings and has delivered 19 fourth-quarter comebacks and 25 winning drives over his career, according to ProFootballReference.com data. Three of them happened in the postseason, including that famous dart to a toe-dragging Holmes in Super Bowl XLIII.

Wyche compared Roethlisberger to Montana, whom the NFL Network named the No. 1 clutch quarterback of all time.

"This guy has the same kind of good fortune in the game," Wyche said. "He seems to zig when he's supposed to zig and doesn't zag. He seems to be able to throw the ball away or maybe get a great run out of his running back, and the players around him perform because they have the confidence that he's going to perform.

"He's just got that quality. It's a charisma thing, and you don't bet against it very often."

Sanchez already has beaten Roethlisberger head-to-head at Heinz Field this year. Roethlisberger posted better passing numbers, but Sanchez ran a fourth-down bootleg 7 yards for a touchdown.

No matter the outcome Sunday night, Sanchez should be considered one of the NFL's future stars. A 24-year-old doesn't advance this far twice in a row by accident.

"He's not mentioned in the same sentences as Peyton Manning or Tom Brady," Brunell said. "He doesn't have those numbers yet. He doesn't have a Super Bowl ring. But all indications are that he's going to be an elite quarterback someday, who will have those numbers and be mentioned with all those top guys like Drew Brees.

"He'll be there. For a guy in only his second year, it's pretty dang impressive what he's accomplished."