By Kristian R. Dyer
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On Sunday afternoon, Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez seemed to heat up as the sun set on Foxborough, spurring a Jets second-half comeback that nearly resulted in a win. The word "nearly" is going to stick with Jets fans, but to blame Sanchez for this loss is to ignore the good that came from this game.
That's not talk of moral victories or improved play. It is to say that Sanchez showed something in that loss that he hasn't all season long.
Through the Jets season so far, Sanchez has been criticized -- and rightly so -- over the last five games. He was lights out to start the season in a Week 1 win over Buffalo, but since then his showings have been dismal. Over four straight games he had a completion percentage less than 50 percent, and then when he did top 50 percent -- as he did in a Week 6 win over the Colts -- he was just 11-for-18 for 82 yards, far from the type of numbers that inspire the franchise.
But in Sunday's loss at the Patriots, he put together the type of numbers that look like a marquee quarterback, going 28-for-41 for 328 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
Now what Jets fans will invariably remember are the gaffes. There was a botched hand off in the second quarter that led to a safety, and then later in the quarter a badly underthrown deep ball that was an interception. Then, of course, there was the fumble in the face of pressure on the final play of overtime, ensuring a Patriots victory. Each play was bad, and each play was typical of the Sanchez seen over and over again throughout this season.
But that isn't the full story on Sanchez from Sunday, although it is the only one being told.
Most impressive was the long drive he orchestrated in the fourth quarter to bring the Jets within three points. In this drive, Sanchez completed nine of his 10 passes for 93 yards, including a perfectly threaded seven-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dustin Keller. Then after a New England punt, Sanchez went six plays to cover 40 yards to tie the game in a drive that could have gone longer but for a bad Stephen Hill drop. He made plays, inspired the offense, made smart decisions and hung in the pocket boldly.
What Sanchez showed was that he is flawed, but for the first time in a tough game this year he actually stepped up.
All that could be hoped for in the past six weeks was that Sanchez wouldn't lose a game, that he could manage the offense and play efficient football. In the big wins this year -- against Buffalo to start the season and then in Week 6 against the Colts -- he did just that. In the overtime win at Miami in Week 3, the Jets won despite his very mediocre showing.
But against the Patriots he showed much more than that. He showed a glimpse of someone who could step up and win games for a Jets team that very much needs playmakers. This is more than Sanchez simply being asked not to lose, as what could emerge from the ashes of another loss to the Patriots is a quarterback who can be ready to start winning.
He did that earlier in his career, efficiently running an offense that went to consecutive AFC championship games in his first two years in the league. But last season and now this year, when he's been asked to do more, he's failed to improve and failed to win games. Sunday showed the skill set to do just that.
That's not to say that his performance was without flaws; he certainly made plenty of mistakes. It also isn't to say that Sanchez has progressed, as he must show more than just one solid game to make questions about his play go away. But in losing to the Patriots, no matter the gaffes and blunders, Sanchez showed a little bit of what can make him a good NFL quarterback.
Right now, "good" must be the standard for this quarterback four years removed from being a first-round pick. To say that he can be better than that, right now, is to fail to grasp just how bad he has been this year. His performance in New England showed that he has the stuff to get the job done, but he must now show that over four quarters.
Week in and week out, and whether his teammates show up or not.
Only then will his critics go away, and only Sanchez can shut them up. It remains to be seen if he can do that.
Kristian R. Dyer covers the Jets for Metro New York and can be followed for news, insight and snarky comments here.
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