To those uninitiated within the realms of hardcore sports fanaticism, watching games is a vastly different kind of experience. When placed in comparison against those well versed in chicken wing devouring, coach cursing, rivalry courting, apparel wearing zealotry; the temporary fan reacts in a decidedly different manner.

 For the acolyte consumed by watching competition, a game unfolds following specific patterns, statistical indicators identified, karmic consequences weighed. They get nervous, when the unreliable kicker lines up to force overtime, processing all the relevant data.  Upon the mind being attacked by an endless amount of information, specific moments can become unbearable, their significance, in the grand scheme of life, temporarily elevated far beyond normal bounds of perceived importance.

 In big games, Conference title matchups, fun has nothing to do with it. A diehard fan makes an emotional investment, and that down payment becomes a paramount concern. Admirable as it may be, to care that much, these people are forgetting why they started watching sports in the first place. The carefree viewing buddy, maybe a casual friend from work dropping in to see what all this NFL fuss is about, eventually enthralled by the competition, far removed from the grip of fear, stands far closer to appreciating the game’s true beauty.

Because the die-hard is destined to attach meaningless thoughts and feelings to present circumstances unaffected by the past, their passion choking out the thrills. Sometimes, we are better off not knowing, or attempting to predict or project, obsess and anticipate. Not for the benefits presented by ignorance. Rather, for the pleasure of life viewed through fresh eyes, a relatively untainted perception.

 While the season ticket holding, message board registered, talk show calling fan sits breathless, the unapologetic bandwagon climber just watches, fascinated. And maybe the truth lies somewhere beyond the over-analysis, in this realm of reverie. They don’t get hung up on stats, team history; even the game’s rules. They just focus on the present moment, notice details lost amid seas of living room high fives. Certain players just jump out, pop off the screen, possessors of an inherent charisma.

When the committed fan, or professional analyst, watches Mark Sanchez participate in playoff games, they are constantly processing information. First, there’s the unique player history. The inconsistences common in young quarterbacks weathered by a championship caliber team in two successive seasons. There are the games he singlehandedly won, and others he totally marred. When the still inexperienced USC graduate struggles, he can rarely summon satisfactory results from the spiral. The incompletions mount, ugly and inaccurate throws. The pocket presence is compromised.

Sanchez is a master masquerader. When he plays poorly, it is so unavoidable. His trials are completely convincing, all appearances pointing toward an inevitably disappointing player, weaknesses overpowering. Scattershot arm, too short, terrible decision-maker, these all apply. His obvious intangible abilities are forgotten, swept away in the name of harsh judgment, reserved for high draft picks surrounded by top shelf talent.

Because Sanchez represents a team widely reviled, a franchise daring fate to hand down comeuppance, his failures are always magnified. He becomes a conduit, an easy, real live symbol for an entire roster. When Sanchez is derided as overhyped, the Jets are brutalized in association.

In many ways, Sanchez is the Jets, on the field, anyway. When his imposter takes the reins, Gang Green is quickly revealed a fraud. Not only a disappointment, but a visually displeasing nightmare, sullying television screens with horrendous execution on routine plays, turning the mundane profane. It’s a bizarre show featuring overthrown outlet passes, indecision and penalties galore. And the football viewing contingent of America became disgusted, all the brash talk, the HBO special, the nonstop headlines, merely the setup for a punch line.

It’d be fitting for the Jets to reach the Super Bowl this season, if only because it has encompassed nearly every emotional level of their franchise history. High hopes, unholy hype, momentary glory, scuttled expectation, questionable personnel decisions, redemption, upsets. It’s all been there. And it revolves around the quarterback.  

Will the unpredictable Sanchez show continue?

Because, the fact is, Sanchez’s accomplishments as a second year pro have been utterly remarkable. Last season, the Jets were a seemingly delusional bunch who barreled into the Conference Championship game, on a magic carpet fitted with nitro rockets. They burned out. “Understanding what’s at stake, understanding how close we were last year, and really just the preparation this week feels so smooth and everything’s feeling right,” said Sanchez at his presser today, referring to the difference between the team’s, and his approach, to last year’s Championship game, and this one. “Where last year,” Sanchez continued, “I couldn’t really put my finger on it at the time, but things were going so fast and you’re just holding on, you know. This year I feel like I have a better grasp on things and I’m just a little more confident going in, and that’s the kind of confidence we need.” Sanchez continued, “So it’s come with a whole year of preparation and trusting the coaches and players around you. But I feel like we have a great plan, and it’s going to take our best effort this week.”

 It’s extremely difficult returning to the peaks the Jets surprisingly, momentarily inhabited last January, no matter how unexpected the initial visit. And yet, they have returned, haunting the haters. Sure, Sanchez’s statistics still have room for improvement, mostly due to a disappointing completion percentage. In reality, though, the quarterback is a primary reason why the Jets find themselves in this most opportune position. Strange, considering a regression had nearly taken hold by the midpoint of the season. Sanchez, though, righted the ship, and despite the missteps, his 2010 was filled with highlights. There were the resounding road victories against the Lions and Browns, looked upon with a critical lens due to the low stature of the opposing teams involved. Sanchez, though, was forging an identity. He is a playmaker, capable of culling magic in severe situations. This playing persona was cemented with a stunning comeback victory against the Houston Texans in November. He is far from a flawless signal caller, but Sanchez’s poise, mocked in many online quarters as a sports writing cliché, has to be considered undeniable. He has four road playoff wins in two seasons, as a second year pro. It’s an amazing feat. He could have easily crumbled in the face of either Divisional Playoff challenge, facing favored, homesteading, and highly touted Chargers and Patriots teams.

Some quarterbacks are inconsistent game to game. Sanchez can be an enigma from down to down.  Against the Patriots he began unbearably, overthrowing a wide open Jerricho Cotchery, his passes sailing. Suddenly, everything began clicking. Sanchez transformed, began hitting open targets, even finding Santonio Holmes on a corner end-zone route, a pitch and catch, practically poetry in motion.

Ultimately, Sanchez, right now, is everything besides definable. He’s the confident passer, burgeoning team leader, road warrior making history. He also remains liable to step backward. Why, following a bland performance in the season opener, Sanchez ripped off a hot streak that placed him near the top of leaderboards, then, without explanation, a drop off occurred, with the occasional theatrical comeback thrown in the mix. Keep in mind, the Jets nearly lost to the Broncos this season because Sanchez had a rough day. The Broncos, an utter mess of a franchise, nearly defeated a Conference Championship participant. Sanchez does have an injured right shoulder. How much of a factor has it been? Unknown… Could the malady still make its presence felt? Unknown…

 Now, Sanchez is on another postseason run, making another Conference Championship appearance, and has another chance to prove he’s a future great, instead of curious case. It’s hard to explain his career at this stage without reverting to at least a little bit of intangible analysis. And while it makes some followers of the game cringe, how else can this career really be analyzed? Isn’t it fair to assess a young player, with a career 54.4 completion percentage, finds a way to rise above his established level of play during big moments. Playoff games, game deciding drives, these are the situations where Sanchez has excelled.

 And before all his success is attributed to the defense and running game, this glib observation fails in the face of the Jets’ approach this season. They placed a ton on his shoulders, deviating from the ground and pound philosophy largely responsible for their heroics in the ‘09 playoffs. Sanchez was the difference in several essential victories. So, could he hold something indefinably special?

The aforementioned band wagon climber…? A big Sanchez fan, most definitely. He has a singular style, easily distinguishable from the other quarterbacks. When he fails, it’s not hard to tell. When he wins, it’s often exciting. He’s the young prince of New York, the big crown attainable. The hardcore fan may fret about all the incompletions, this marvelous road record due to slide. The casual fan, on the other hand, thinks Sanchez is awesome all year ‘round, on the same level as a Brady or Manning, not privy to all the evidence otherwise. As a few jilted Giants followers on the couch groan, Mark Sanchez’s new number one supporter, the dude who has watched a handful of games his whole life, is just enjoying the show… oblivious, and not pretending to know.  When it comes to assessing Mark Sanchez, this Title Game, his future, maybe that’s the right answer.


Rex Ryan met with the media, two days before the Conference Championship game.

On the players listed as questionable: “They’re questionable… they’re playing… pretty much it.”

On today’s practice: “Today’s practice was outstanding… focus was great… as you’d assume it would be… guys are really working out there… They’re dialed in.”

On Hines Ward: “This guy’s a great football player. There’s no question about that… he’ll look for you now… there’s no question… let’s face it, they changed the rule [about] peeling back and hitting a defenseless player [because Hines Ward] I respect the heck out of Hines Ward.”

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