Rookie heroics, botched field goals by Graham, lead Jets into AFC’s Divisional Round

CINCINNATI, OH – This was the moment Rex Ryan and Mike Tannenbaum envisioned back in April, when they made the bold decision to trade up for the number five pick in the draft and select the signal-caller from USC.   They dreamed of nights like tonight where the pretty boy from Long Beach, with the rocket arm and the GQ smile, would rise to the occasion and lead his team to victory in the frozen January tundra.

A franchise quarterback, making plays through the air, picking apart coverages, keeping a top-flight defense on their heels.  Living to play another week.   This was it.

Quarterback Mark Sanchez completed 12 of 15 passes for 182 yards with a touchdown, and got help from fellow rookie, RB Shonn Greene, who finished with 135 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries, as the Jets rolled to a 24-14 Wildcard Playoff victory over the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on Saturday night.

“This is when you need to turn it on,” said Sanchez.  “You just need to turn it on.  This was a great opportunity to do that.  I think we capitalized as an offense and as a defense.”

Depending on the result of Sunday’s match in Foxboro between the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots, the Jets will either play in Indianapolis or San Diego, next weekend in the AFC Division Round.

Jets RB Thomas Jones celebrates after scoring a TD during the Jets' 24-14 wildcard playoff win against the Bengals. ( Photo)

New York was also helped immensely by two missed field goals in the second half by Bengals’ kicker Shayne Graham.   Graham, a former Pro Bowler who has proven to be one of the NFL’s most effective and clutch kickers during his stint in Cincinnati, sailed a 35-yard third quarter kick wide left and was wide right on a 28-yard attempt with 3:49 remaining.   Graham’s late miss may have very well been the last of his Bengals’ career, as he is set to be a free agent following the season.

Sanchez played arguably the most impressive game of his young career, completing tough passes in the seam, exhibiting supreme composure, confidence and poise in a game that was a roller-coaster of emotions for both teams.

“What a job (Sanchez) has done,” said Jets head coach Rex Ryan.  “You just see it.   I think he’s tired of hearing that he’s the weak link of our football team, instead of being part of our success.   I think that’s what he is right now for us.”

All season, Sanchez has been maligned for his pitfalls and rookie hiccups.   While the New York Jets entered the postseason with the league’s leading defense and rushing attack, many believed that their quarterback was the one element holding them back.   In the biggest game of his young professional career, the SoCal boy was the best player on the field.

“He was on fire,” said Ryan.   “There’s no doubt about it.   But, the thing that I was most impressed with was just that confidence that he had.   He wanted this game in the worst way.   He felt confident, he felt comfortable.”

“One of these days, he’s going to be the biggest thing we’ve got on this football team.  The best thing we’ve got.   Hey, maybe that day’s coming sooner than later.”

The rookie was effective in spreading the ball around the field, not honing in one on receiver or forcing balls, which he had been akin to doing during a tumultuous regular season.   Sanchez dialed in with key third down completions to receiver Jerricho Cotchery and re-introduced a familiar face, TE Dustin Keller, into the gameplan.  Keller, who finished the day with three receptions for 99 yards and a touchdown, hooked up with Sanchez for two big plays.

The first came on first-and-10 from the Cincinnati 45 yard line, midway through the second quarter.   Sanchez rolled right and found a wide open Keller in the secondary.   Keller caught the pass and took off, down the right sideline for 45 yards and the score, giving the Jets a 14-7 lead with 6:30 remaining in the first half.

The Jets wouldn’t have been in a position to score, if not for an incredible defensive play by cornerback Darrelle Revis, on the previous possession.

On third-and-six from the 41, Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco took his first trip of the afternoon to Revis Island, and had a miserable stay.  Palmer fired a ball down the right sideline intended for Ochocinco, who had Revis in single coverage.  Revis delivered once again, shielding off the Bengals receiver, spinning and making an impressive interception of Palmer’s pass.   The Pro Bowler proceeded to return it 20 yards to the Jets’43 yard line.

Ochocinco, had another quiet game courtesy of Revis, finishing with only two receptions for 28 yards.

Sanchez’s second big play to Keller came during crunch time, in the fourth quarter.  On second-and-8 from the Jets’ 34-yard line, Sanchez faked the hand-off to Thomas Jones and rolled out to his left.   The rookie dumped off to Keller, who cut across the field and up the right side for a 43-yard gain, setting up a 20-yard field goal by kicker Jay Feely.   Feely’s only field goal of the day, extended the Jets lead to 24-14, a two-score ballgame with under six minutes remaining.

Feely also handled the punting duties as punter Steve Weatherford was unavailable, due to an irregular heartbeat.  Feely punted seven times on the day for an average of 28 yards.

“I had no idea he could punt like that,” said Ryan.  “Feely stepped up and did a tremendous job for us.”

Ryan, who labeled his Jets’ squad “the favorite” in the NFL’s postseason just days ago, echoed those comments following the team’s most impressive showing of the season.

“We are going to be a tough out,” boasted Ryan.  “We are going to go into every game, thinking we can win it.  Obviously next week we’ll be playing either at San Diego or at Indianapolis.  But either way, they know we’re coming in and we expect to win.”

“This was just the first step in what we think is going to be a great journey.”

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