With a quarterback nearly half the age of last year's starter, the New York Jets stand on firmer playoff ground entering the regular season finale than a year ago when the breaks didn't quite fall in their favor after sliding down the AFC standings.
In his rookie season, 23-year-old Mark Sanchez has guided the Jets to an 8-7 record after a big win Sunday in Indianapolis and is another big win away from helping the franchise clinch its first postseason berth since 2006.
New York was the beneficiary of a coaching move that saw Jim Caldwell sit Peyton Manning with the undefeated Colts ahead 15-10 in the third quarter. Now, the Jets' playoff destiny is in its own hands for the first time since their 3-0 start—only needing a victory against Cincinnati as the Bengals visit the Meadowlands for the featured Sunday Night Football game, which will be the stadium's last.
But after losing six of their next seven contests following the hot 3-0 start, the Jets have ripped off four wins in their last five with their rookie pivot, setting up the Sunday night showdown for a playoff spot. And despite the disappointing home loss against Atlanta last week, New York got a ton of help on Sunday in addition to its victory over the Colts.
The Jets' division rival, Miami, was beaten at home after falling behind 27-0 to Houston, while another AFC East foe hammered the Jaguars 35-7 in New England, and Pittsburgh kept its playoff hope alive with a three-point win over the Ravens—all results which combined to put the Jets in a comfy "win and you're in" scenario.
Regardless of the much-needed lift the Jets received in the standings, the run on which Sanchez has led the Jets in the final month of the season has been monstrous, sharply contrasting New York's 2008 collapse under the leadership of 39-year-old Brett Favre.
Last year, after Favre orchestrated a 34-13 Jets blowout of the Titans in Tennessee, New York was in a seemingly comfortable position atop the AFC. They pushed their record to 8-3 after dominating the only undefeated team remaining and were cruising to a first-round playoff bye.
But as we all know, Favre's age and gray beard caught up with him down the stretch with the team dropping four of its five remaining games to miss the top six altogether.
Contrary to 2009, not only did the Jets have to knock off a surging Miami squad in their season finale, but they needed a whole lot of help before battling the Dolphins.
The Bills had to upset New England in blustery Buffalo to set up a much-anticipated AFC East showdown with Miami, while Jacksonville had to beat the Ravens to give New York a shot at a wild card spot. Of course, none of the scenarios unfolded and the Jets ended the year a disappointing 9-7, looking back at the Favre experiment as a complete failure.
However, flashforward a season and a much younger Sanchez has the Jets in a solid spot in the AFC, despite an unsettling stretch of seven games for the USC product during the middle of the season.
He's thrown for 2,381 yards, 12 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions in 15 games this season, compared to Favre's 3,472 yards and 22 touchdowns and picks a year ago. While the old man's numbers are better, you can't argue with the results Sanchez has brought to the Jets, who are in a prime position to play for the Super Bowl.
A win over Cincinnati will push them to 9-7—an identical record to last season's letdown—but a resilient Sanchez has done more for New York in his first year of action than a degenerative Favre did in 2008, especially if the young quarterback can led his troops to a Sunday night victory, which would punch the Jets' playoff ticket for the first time in three seasons.