FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — This practice was a little different for Mark Sanchez.
Not only because the New York Jets quarterback is getting ready for a big playoff game against the New England Patriots. It was the first time in nearly a month that his sore right shoulder was no longer an issue.
“Honestly, it feels the best it’s felt in three, four weeks,” Sanchez said Wednesday. “I was full practice today for the first time in a while, and that was huge. We know it’s getting better and that’s the most important thing, is week by week it’s getting better, so I’ll be ready to go.”
That’s exactly what Rex Ryan and the Jets (12-5) wanted to hear.
Sanchez’s shoulder had been bothering him since he fell awkwardly in a game against Pittsburgh on Dec. 19. He has played well through the injury, but has been limited at practice since — even throwing left-handed at times to not overwork the shoulder.
There have also been rumors of slightly torn cartilage and the possibility of offseason surgery, neither of which the team nor Sanchez have confirmed or even discussed. Now, with his team facing the Patriots (14-2), Sanchez can focus solely on football.
“This is huge for us,” he said. “This could set up right where we want to be and put us in the AFC championship game, where we were last year, and hopefully move on from there.”
He and the Jets have a huge task in front of them before they can even think about playing again next week. They are returning to the place where they were embarrassed just over a month ago in a 45-3 rout by the Patriots.
“After playing them last time and not playing our best, and then playing really well, all we could’ve asked for is to play them one more time,” Sanchez said. “We get our chance this week, so we need to make the most of it.”
Sanchez has been playing with a heavy heart, too, after a young fan he befriended died Dec. 30 from a rare form of cancer. He met 11-year-old Aiden Binkley just two weeks earlier, but they established a bond that Sanchez says will last — and motivate him — forever.
“He gave me an inspiration and to see him compete and fight the way he did against something that ended up taking his life was pretty inspiring,” said Sanchez, still wearing a green bracelet Binkley gave him. “His family is still very close to me. He’s got a good seat for all of the games. He’s got a good view.”
In his two NFL seasons, Sanchez is 3-1 in playoff games, including leading the Jets to a 17-16 victory over the Colts in Indianapolis last Saturday. But, he was off target on several throws in the first half before rebounding after halftime, attributing his early struggles to just having an off-game rather than on his shoulder bothering him.
“Just assessing everything at halftime last game, I knew I didn’t feel right,” Sanchez said. “I just wasn’t as accurate as I needed to be. There was no way I was going to let it snowball, and eventually avalanche. I just wanted to come back, get completions, be real smart, take care of the football, no more stupid decisions — especially in the red zone — let the run game work for us, get completions and build on that.”
That’s exactly what he did against the Colts, outdueling Peyton Manning with the game on the line. After Manning drove Indianapolis down for the go-ahead score with less than a minute remaining, Sanchez coolly took over. Perhaps the signature play of Sanchez’s career was calling for a long pass to Braylon Edwards down the right sideline.
It wasn’t Ryan’s call. Or offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s. It was all Sanchez.
Edwards leaped and made an acrobatic grab for an 18-yard completion to the Colts 14, setting up Nick Folk’s game-winning field goal as time expired.
“It wasn’t the best throw in the world to Braylon, and I’m not afraid to admit that,” Sanchez said. “He made a really good catch. However it has to happen, we won the game, we’re in the divisional round and that’s all we needed.”
It also served as a huge confidence boost for a player who had championship hopes placed on his right shoulder the day the Jets traded up in the draft to grab their franchise quarterback.
“I just think he’s really coming on,” Ryan said. “You expect young players to improve each year and I think he’s probably improved as much as anybody that I can remember.”
Sanchez has orchestrated several comeback victories this season, and that kind of play has caught the attention of even Bill Belichick.
“He’s done an excellent job in some tough situations and brought the team back and won for them,” the Patriots coach said. “I think anytime a quarterback does that, that’s what you want on your resume.”
Now, it’s time for Sanchez to turn things around at Gillette Stadium, where he has thrown one touchdown pass and been intercepted seven times.
“I think it’s bigger than just me,” he said. “I think it’s about our entire team. The last game, obviously, I didn’t play well, but in all phases, we didn’t play well, so that led to the ultimate outcome and we’re going to have to play well — offense, defense, special teams — and it starts with the quarterback. It’s going to be a good matchup for us. We’re excited.”
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.