FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Three straight Mark Sanchez throws sailed high and well out of the reach of Jets receivers and a drive stalled in a critical playoff game against the Colts in Indianapolis. And while yes, it was a grumpy Sanchez who went to the sideline at the end of that drive, he didn't swear at anybody or throw or kick anything. He took off his helmet and began asking questions.

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"He came over looking for information," said Mark Brunell, the veteran backup quarterback the Jets brought in to tutor young Sanchez in this, his second season in the NFL. "He's always looking for information, always engaging guys, whether it's me, the coaches ... really anybody on the sidelines he can find. He wants to know what we saw, what he can expect next, and he's determined not to make the same mistake again."

Which is why, by the fourth quarter of that playoff game in Indianapolis, Sanchez was making his throws. Why he was leading the Jets to an improbable comeback victory over Peyton Manning and the Colts. Why, even though he was making some similarly bad throws early in Sunday's game against Tom Brady and the Patriots in New England, he was right there again in the second half, making the big throws to Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes and leading the Jets to another road playoff win. Mark Sanchez is 24 years old and has already tied the record for most career playoff road wins by an NFL quarterback with four in his first two years. And while it might not always be pretty, somehow he and the Jets keep getting it done.

"His numbers maybe aren't as great as Peyton's or Tom's," Brunell said. "But those guys aren't playing football right now, and he is."

Sanchez on Sunday will attempt to lead the Jets to their third road playoff win of this season (and their fifth in two years) when he takes on the Steelers in Pittsburgh in the AFC championship game. If he wins this one, his next game will be at a neutral site -- the Super Bowl in Dallas two weeks later. It's because the stakes are that high that Sanchez isn't interested in talking about his record even as it's become big national news.

"Rex Ryan and I and everybody on the team, we're all 4-1 or whatever we are in the playoffs," Sanchez said. "We all beat the Indianapolis Colts, not just Peyton Manning, and not just Tom Brady and the Patriots. We all beat them."

And he's right, of course. Second-year quarterbacks don't have the kind of success Sanchez is having without strong supporting casts. Thrust last year into a starter's role as a rookie on a team with the highest expectations, Sanchez has benefited from playing behind All-Pro offensive linemen, having star receivers to whom he can throw and of course the Jets' excellent defense.

"It makes my job so easy here to have guys like (center) Nick Mangold to help," Sanchez said. "And when you have perennial Pro Bowlers, land future Hall of Famers like LaDanian Tomlinson to help. It's a joy to do it here."

Still, quarterback is the most important position in sports, and if the guy playing it didn't have some level of skill, some level of leadership ability and some ability to perform under pressure, he can sink a team that has all that other stuff going for it. Sanchez is still young, still prone to mistakes, and certainly doesn't merit comparisons with the guys he's beaten the past two weeks. But he's shown an awful lot of the good stuff in his brief time in the league so far.

"He's got that ability to adjust throughout the game," Jets tight end Dustin Keller said. "He's able to make corrections and adjust on the fly. That's something you want to see from your quarterback. There's leadership in that, when you see a guy who can figure it out during the game, during one drive."

You wouldn't have pegged Sanchez, coming out of college, as a guy who'd be able to deal with adversity. During his time at USC, the fact is there wasn't much. But Sanchez's roots run deeper, and he credits his parents for instilling leadership values in him at a young age. His father, who was and still is an Orange County fire captain, and his mother, who worked in day care, were very involved in Sanchez's early life.

"From my dad's side, him being a firefighter, it's very similar to being a quarterback because he has his own group, his team, and they rely on each other, they count on each other and they need to be accountable to each other with their lives," Sanchez said. "While our trade isn't quite our lives, it's wins and losses that can change people's careers, so it's important to us. Then from my mom, I guess her idea of leadership was serving others first. They've taught me to be competitive and taught me to lead from an early age, and it just seems natural here."

Natural enough that his teammates buy into the idea of Sanchez as a leader, even though he's the youngest guy on the team.

"He wants to be perfect all the time," Holmes said. "As receivers, we let him know mistakes are going to happen during the course of the game, but we need you to keep your cool because we're going to ride with you no matter what. If you throw four interceptions, we still have to play until the end of the fourth quarter. And if you want to continue to throw interceptions, that's fine. But if you want to give your playmakers the ball, then do so, because we're going to have your back no matter what."

That feeling is mutual, between Sanchez and his receivers and all up and down the Jets' roster. They're in the AFC championship game together for the second time in two years. And in the middle of it all is Mark Sanchez, their 24-year-old quarterback.

"He's still pretty young, and he can still get pretty silly at times, but he's growing up," Brunell said. "I think he understands the game, understands that in the course of a season, in the course of a game, you're going to miss some throws. He understands that and he accepts it and just wants to know what he can do to get better. And that's really all you can ask."

Anything else -- even four playoff road wins in two years -- well, that's just icing on the cake.


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