For most of the year, the Jets have attempted to make things easier for Mark Sanchez. It’s not that they didn’t have faith in him; it’s just that he’s still a relatively inexperienced quarterback, despite the two consecutive AFC Championship Game appearances. They didn’t ask him to make throws he couldn’t make, and they did their best to establish the run game and not put him in situations where the defense could easily confuse him. This, mostly, has worked, and it’s worked perfectly in the playoffs. But they can’t hide him anymore. This game is on him.
As Joe DeLessio pointed out this week, Sanchez had it relatively easy in the last meeting with the Steelers, with good protection and a nice special-teams touchdown to relax the burden on him. But also relaxing the burden: the lack of Steelers super safety Troy Polamalu, who missed that game. He’ll be back Sunday, and even though he wasn’t a major factor in the win over the Ravens, the Steelers will be counting on him Sunday.
Polamalu’s presence makes a major difference. Putting aside the Steelers’ record when he plays against when he doesn’t — Pittsburgh is 16–4 when he plays and 6–7 when he doesn’t, over the last two years — he’s a particularly pesky person for Sanchez. Polamalu isn’t just a ferocious tackler, he’s also a confusing menace in coverage. Sometimes he’ll drop back, sometimes he’ll rush, and he’s an expert at disguising his intentions. He’s a tough enough puzzle for Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. He could potentially be a nightmare for Sanchez. And with the Steelers having one of the best run defenses in the league, he won’t have much of an escape hatch either.
There has been a school of thought that Sanchez is more a beneficiary of luck rather than the orchestrator of it, that he has been in the right place at the right time, and that eventually his luck will run out. In some ways, this is true: He didn’t so much outplay Manning and Brady over the last two weeks as he did enjoy not having to play against the Jets defense like they did. But if he is going to become the first Jets quarterback to reach the Super Bowl since Joe Namath, he is going to have to earn it. He has to be more than Trent Dilfer, and he has to play even better than he has in the first two playoff games. Rex Ryan will have his defense ready; the Steelers won’t put up 35 points. Sanchez has to do his part now. If he can, if he can pull this off, if he can get the Jets to the Super Bowl, he’ll have secured his legend in New York before he turns 25 years old. And he’ll deserve it.