FUN MARCHES ON

January 24, 2011

First the Jets talked a good game against New England, then they throttled their buttoned-down archrival when it counted. Next stop for the Big Apple circus: an AFC title game showdown with the Steelers

They ran with their arms outstretched like airplane wings, the giddiness washing over every Jet as the Gillette Stadium field became a blur of white and green. Wide receiver Braylon Edwards executed a backflip with a perfect landing. Defensive end Shaun Ellis preened to the crowd and flexed his biceps. Running back LaDainian Tomlinson spotted Marty Schottenheimer, and sank into his old coach's arms. "One step at a time," said Schottenheimer, whose son, Brian, is New York's offensive coordinator. "One step at a time." In a hallway outside the visitors' locker room, Nick Sanchez Sr. was wearing a green Jets jacket and reliving the times he would take his youngest son, Mark, to throw footballs into trash cans and make seven-step drops beside bundled-up towels. "Like it was yesterday," said the father of the winning quarterback.

And at a microphone deep in the belly of Gillette, the team's puppeteer and reigning prankster stood before a bank of television cameras and let loose a few more zingers. "Same old Jets going to the AFC Championship Game two years in a row—only difference is we plan on winning this one," coach Rex Ryan said after his team dismantled the Patriots 28--21 on Sunday, a victory that set up a rematch with the Steelers this weekend in Pittsburgh, where New York won 22--17 in Week 15. In what has become a winter of settling scores, the Jets have taken down Peyton Manning, who kept them from the Super Bowl a year ago, and Tom Brady, who has haunted them for a decade. On a conference championship Sunday that will include the old-school Packers, Bears and Steelers, the Jets will be the party crashers flapping their gums, unkempt and impossible to ignore.

"We're not in fear of anybody," Ryan said on Sunday. Just last month he was the leader of a seemingly outclassed and overwhelmed team that was more traveling circus than Super Bowl contender. Two days after the Patriots throttled the Jets 45--3 on Dec. 6 in Foxborough, Ryan led his players onto their practice field on a chilly morning in Florham Park, N.J. A hole had been dug next to the field. Ryan placed a football in it, covered it with sod and told his players they were burying the loss and everything that went with it. The ploy was pure Ryan, whose coaching style will never be described as subtle. He curses players out, then sheds tears in front of them, cracks them up with blonde wigs and bawdy humor, but he unfailingly fills them with confidence, no matter what the tabloids scream. "If he believes in you first, you find a way to rise to the occasion," says defensive end Trevor Pryce.

Says Edwards, "This whole season there's been doubt, there's been scandal. Everybody wants to come down on us. That's fine. We'll take the guys inside this room, and we'll battle anybody."

Ryan was at it again in the run-up to New York's third meeting with the Patriots this season, a game he called the most significant in franchise history behind Super Bowl III. Ryan pumped up his players, defended them at every turn (even cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who cursed out Brady through the media) and classified his coaching matchup with New England's Bill Belichick as "personal." Midway through the week Ryan was handed another inspirational tool. The coach received a package from former Jets defensive end Dennis Byrd, whose career ended in 1992 when he collided with a teammate, Scott Mersereau, and broke the C-5 vertebra in his neck. Byrd's number 90 jersey had to be cut off his body so doctors could tend to him. More than 18 years later, Ryan now had the tattered jersey in his possession.

Ryan usually addresses the team the night before a game, but he switched tactics at the Jets' hotel last Saturday. The coach showed a video of a young Byrd making plays on the defensive line. Then he summoned Byrd, and the ex-Jet who once was told he would never walk again limped to the front of the room. For 15 minutes Byrd spoke in words that only men who have worn an NFL uniform would understand. The room was so quiet that Byrd thought he'd bombed, but his speech was hitting its mark. He spoke of the Jets' organization and the talent that flowed through it. He spoke of the only pro football team he'd ever known, a franchise that had drafted him out of Tulsa and given him most of four seasons. He talked of embracing the challenge of beating New England and of not letting the moment slip away. Then Byrd told the room something else: "I would trade anything for one play."

"He didn't say another season," Edwards said. "He didn't say one game. He said he would trade anything in his world for one play. He'd trade his whole life for six seconds. That's all it took for every guy in our room."

On Sunday the Jets hung Byrd's jersey in their locker room, and Tomlinson and safety James Ihedigbo carried another of his jerseys to midfield for the coin toss. "Dennis Byrd was talking about looking into people's eyes and seeing into their heart, seeing into their soul and feeling that competitive spirit just bursting out of them," Mark Sanchez said. "Those are the kind of guys we have in the huddle."

But how would Byrd's speech erase the memory of that 42-point defeat? How would the Jets rebound against a team that had dominated them for a decade? Ryan, an even better defensive game-planner than he is a motivator, mixed his coverages expertly, letting his defensive backs (in particular the cornerback duo of Cromartie and Darrelle Revis) use their size and athleticism to hound the Patriots' receivers. Brady would drop back to pass and find most of his outlets shut off. "He was expecting one thing, and we showed him another," says Ellis, who accounted for two of the Jets' five sacks. "Our defensive backs did a great job getting hands on receivers. For us up front, we knew we just had to keep pushing the pocket and we would be able to make it home."

Brady had been nearly impeccable this season, throwing 36 touchdowns and just four interceptions, including a streak of 335 straight passes without a pick. But on his fifth attempt he overshot running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis and found linebacker David Harris, who returned the interception 58 yards. On New England's next possession Brady dropped back to pass and was belted by Shaun Ellis for a sack. "He becomes a different quarterback when he doesn't have wide-open guys and you hit him three or four times," Pryce said. "He was skittish. I've never seen him like that. In the first half he was terrified."

The Patriots imploded in stunning fashion, losing their third straight postseason game, including Super Bowl XLII to the Giants and last year's wild-card game at home to the Ravens. In the first half alone tight end Alge Crumpler dropped a pass in the end zone; Belichick risked a fake punt from his own 38 with 1:14 left, which failed and led to a touchdown that put the Jets up 14--3; and left guard Logan Mankins drew an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty, scuttling a Patriots drive right before halftime. All this after Belichick had benched Wes Welker for New England's first offensive series because the wide receiver made several references to feet and toes in an interview last Thursday, a not-so-subtle tweak of Ryan and the foot-fetish videos he allegedly made with his wife, Michelle. Neither Belichick nor Welker addressed the benching after the game, though the back-and-forth of words between the teams continued into the night. Patriots receiver Deion Branch questioned the class of several unnamed Jets. Linebacker Bart Scott told ESPN that the New England defense couldn't stop a nosebleed.

Gliding above the fray was Sanchez, who last year took the Jets to the AFC Championship Game as a rookie. While he played well during the postseason a year ago, it wasn't clear when this year's playoffs began if he could lead the team on the drives from which legends are born. But in Indianapolis on wild-card weekend Sanchez marched downfield late, coolly hitting Edwards for 18 yards on the right sideline to set up the decisive field goal. Against the Patriots, Sanchez made big throws all night, none more critical than the seven-yard fade Holmes snagged in the left corner of the end zone with 13:06 left in the fourth quarter, a catch Holmes said "probably was" more difficult than his game-winning touchdown as a Steeler in Super Bowl XLIII.

Now, as Ryan predicted would happen in training camp, Sanchez is looked upon as a Jets strength, not a weakness. To Nick, his son's excellence under pressure was simply the result of hard work dating back to his childhood in Mission Viejo, Calif., where Sanchez was a ball boy for Carson Palmer's high school team. Sanchez and his father would watch Palmer practice with Bob Johnson, the Southern California--area quarterback guru, and mimic their drills when they were finished.

"We couldn't afford to attend [Johnson's camps] then, but there was nothing that said we couldn't go watch," Nick says. "As soon as their workout was over, Mark and I would go on the field and mirror those workouts. A big part was conceptual. What's the down and distance? What's the score? What part of the field are you on? How much time is left? We'd spend hours over a long period of seasons and years to make him more competitive, and it worked well until Mark had a chance to be coached by Bob firsthand."

Says Johnson, who coached Sanchez during his junior and senior years at Mission Viejo High, "There are tons of things [to playing quarterback], but the most important is footwork and balance, and we have tons of drills that represent that."

Johnson recalls the young Sanchez as a gym rat and three-sport athlete who wanted to learn, qualities that have served him well in Brian Schottenheimer's offense. On Sunday in New England, where Sanchez had looked lost in two previous starts, he had a 127.3 rating and completed a range of throws, from back-shoulder strikes to lasers over the middle. "As a competitor, when somebody tells you, 'You can't,' all you want to do is prove them wrong," Sanchez says. "Learn from those [losses] but don't dwell on the emotions of those games. Figure out what happened, why I forced balls [and] got sloppy with footwork."

New York's victory wasn't an hour old, and Sanchez was already thinking about Pittsburgh. As he stood over a sink in the visitors' locker room, flipping his tie over his left shoulder so he could brush his teeth, his backup, veteran Mark Brunell, walked behind him.

"Everything you did last week, do it again this week," Brunell said.

"Nah, I'm going to change it," Sanchez joked.

It was one last back-and-forth before they headed into the night, ready to scrap for two more games, to live up to the motto of men like Ryan and Byrd: Play like a Jet.

Now on SI.com

Peter King and Don Banks analyze the conference title games at SI.com/nfl

"THIS WHOLE SEASON THERE'S BEEN DOUBT, THERE'S BEEN SCANDAL," SAYS EDWARDS. "THAT'S FINE. WE'LL BATTLE ANYBODY."

PHOTOPhotograph by HEINZ KLUETMEIERSITTING PRETTY After his electrifying catch over Kyle Arrington put New York up by 10 in the fourth quarter, Holmes took a moment to exult in his team's resilience. PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER[See caption above] PHOTODAVID BERGMAN (SANCHEZ)ON THE MARK Sanchez (6) threw three TD passes, including a strike to Edwards (left). PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER (EDWARDS)[See caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)