Sanchez keeping nice company in division final

The Associated Press ~ staff The News
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Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees - and Mark Sanchez?

Yep, the rookie from Southern Cal is keeping some heady company. He's got a whole lot further than some of the best quarterbacks in NFL history did in their first seasons, too.

The fifth overall pick in last year's draft is part of the NFL's final four, playing for a spot in the Super Bowl just like the game's career passing leader, the league's only four-time MVP, and the sport's most accurate passer.

Sanchez is the third rookie quarterback to get to the AFC title game in the last six year. - Associated Press file photo

NEW ORLEANS -

Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees - and Mark Sanchez?

Yep, the rookie from Southern Cal is keeping some heady company. He's got a whole lot further than some of the best quarterbacks in NFL history did in their first seasons, too.

The fifth overall pick in last year's draft is part of the NFL's final four, playing for a spot in the Super Bowl just like the game's career passing leader, the league's only four-time MVP, and the sport's most accurate passer.

Sure could be overwhelming.

"This feels right," Sanchez said confidently. "It feels good. It feels the way you dream it would feel just growing up.."

Maybe not. A rookie quarterback has got to the AFC title game in three of the last six years. The other two, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger and Baltimore's Joe Flacco, fell short of the Super Bowl.

Now Sanchez gets his chance.

The theory that quarterbacks fresh out of U.S. college should sit and watch died a while ago. Maybe it began to disappear with Manning, who never has missed a start since being the top selection in 1998.

Favre barely saw the field with the Atlanta Falcons in 1991, throwing five passes (two were intercepted) before he was traded to Green Bay.

Brees stars for the the New Orleans Saints, but when he entered the league a decade after Favre, he had only one start for San Diego as a rookie, perhaps because the Chargers had been so burned by using Manning contemporary Ryan Leaf early on that they were wary of going with a youngster again.

Now, it's no big deal for the new kid in town to line up behind centre from the outset. Or, in the last half-dozen seasons, to play deep into January.

"As you get older, you appreciate (the chance to play in the Super Bowl) more, said the 40-year-old Favre, who got there in his sixth and seventh NFL seasons, going 1-1, but has not returned.

"And when you have been there, you know how difficult it is to get back. I don't care how good you are. I keep using Pittsburgh as an example, and the Giants a couple of years ago. You never know. Seize the moment."

The Jets have done a lot of seizing recently, winning seven of eight, including four in a row, two in the playoffs on the road - about as difficult a challenge as a rookie quarterback could face. Sanchez met the hurdles thanks as much to the Jets' strengths around him as to what he has achieved with his arm and legs.

Sanchez is 24-for-38 for 282 yards in wins at Cincinnati and San Diego. Those would be one-game numbers for Favre, Manning or Brees.

But New York's top-ranked running game and No. 1-rated defence have made Sanchez's inexperience almost a nonfactor. That's nearly enough to make a veteran quarterback jealous.

"Obviously he's got a great team around him: great run game, great defence," Brees said.

"His offensive co-ordinator is Brian Schottenheimer, who was my quarterback coach in San Diego. Brian's done a great job helping him prepare and learn the game. He's gotten a little faster dose of the learning curve than most."

Sanchez agrees, recognizing the conservative approach - if letting a rookie be your quarterback from the get-go can be considered conservative - not only has worked for the team, but has been a boon for him.

"It's worked to this point, and hopefully I'll be able to take more chances and really get a feel for things," he said. "Right now, it's better to be smart than good.

"I do feel more comfortable as the days go on. There is no substitute for that experience. I think the ... difference in these last few games is knowing what it takes to win and also knowing what gets you beat."

Those are lessons Favre, Manning and Brees certainly have learned. Sanchez, of course, has gotten a terrific head start in his pro football education. After all, Manning went 3-13 as a rookie.

Organizations: U.S. college, NFL, Southern Cal Jets Atlanta Falcons New Orleans Saints Chargers Giants

Geographic location: San Diego, Pittsburgh, NEW ORLEANS Baltimore Green Bay Cincinnati New York

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