By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Mark Sanchez is still learning on the job but the young New York Jets quarterback can become the NFL's 'King of the Road' should he lead his team past the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday and into the Super Bowl.
Sanchez has outdueled Peyton Manning and the Colts, and Tom Brady and the Patriots in New York's first two road tests this postseason and matches up against double Super Bowl winner Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers in the AFC Championship game.
Jets coach Rex Ryan said Sanchez welcomed the challenge.
"The bigger the stage, the more he wants to play and the more he looks into it as this is his time to shine," Ryan told reporters this week at the Jets' training facility.
After an up-and-down regular season in which he ranked 29th with a 54.8 completion percentage and threw 13 interceptions along with 17 touchdowns, Sanchez has delivered consistently on the playoff stage.
In five career playoff games, including wins last year in Cincinnati and San Diego, Sanchez has a 60.5 percent completion rate with seven touchdowns against three picks.
Back-up quarterback Mark Brunell, in his 16th season in the league, has been impressed by Sanchez's growth and approach.
"He's always looking for information from all the quarterbacks and the coaches on the sidelines," said Brunell, a three-time Pro Bowl quarterback.
"He wants to know what we saw, wants to know what to expect next. He's determined that whatever mistake it is, not to make it in the next series. It's very impressive for a young guy.
"His numbers aren't as great as Peyton's or Tom's but they're not playing football right now and he is. It shows you what kind of player he is and he's only going to get better."
The last time the Jets reached the Super Bowl was after the 1968 season, when fabled quarterback Joe Namath made good on his guarantee of victory with a win over the Baltimore Colts.
Namath said Sanchez would be prepared for Pittsburgh.
"The young man is getting smarter and smarter," Namath told ESPN radio. "The more repetitions he gets, the better anticipation. For anyone to think that this big game is any different than the other big games that Sanchez has faced in his young career, they're wrong."
"This fellow has already played five playoff games and done a fine job. I don't think Sanchez is going to be overwhelmed one little bit with this opportunity."
Sanchez, a third-generation Mexican-American whose father was a California fire captain, said Ryan has encouraged him to trust his instincts.
"Definitely not to hold anything back and to be yourself," Sanchez said about what Ryan had taught him about leadership.
"I don't know how many times he's told me that. Even in the toughest situations, he's always told me he's never wavered in his confidence. It's taught me to never waver. You've got to trust yourself."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)