By Steve Keating
INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - Playing on a stage where you are only as good as your last performance, New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez was again the toast of Broadway on Saturday, after winning a 17-16 wild-card thriller over the Indianapolis Colts.
New York crowds have always been among the most fickle audiences and Sanchez had received several bad reviews during a rollercoaster season that saw him battle shoulder injuries and come close to being benched.
But Sanchez delivered when it mattered most, engineering a late drive that ended with Nick Folk booting a 32-yard field goal as time expired to send the Jets through to the divisional playoffs next Sunday against the New England Patriots.
Taken by New York with the fifth overall pick in the 2009 draft, Sanchez stepped into the leading role as a rookie last year and remained on a steep learning curve during his sophomore campaign.
But Jets coach Rex Ryan gave his quarterback's effort two thumbs up after he displayed the type of self-assurance and swagger against the Colts that had been missing a year ago when they lost to Indianapolis in the AFC championship game and missed a trip to the Super Bowl.
Ryan pointed to one play late in the game as an example Sanchez's blossoming confidence and ability.
Trailing 16-14 with 53 seconds left on the clock, the Jets were not done, Antonio Cromartie returning a Colts kickoff 47-yards before Sanchez took over finding Braylon Edwards with an 18-yard pass to move Folk within range.
"As the game went on he got sharper and sharper," Ryan told reporters. "The last pass to Braylon Edwards, the kid made that call on his own.
"Shotty (Jets offensive co-coordinator Brain Schottenheimer) just said, 'Alright kid you throw the ball you want!' and then he made that huge throw.
"That's how much he has grown up."
Sanchez finished the night with modest numbers, completing 18 of 31 pass attempts for 189-yards with one interception and no touchdowns.
But he would not buckle under the crushing pressure, tossing a pin-point strike to Edwards that he admitted later he might not have been able to deliver a year ago.
"It's a 'got to have it' situation," explained Sanchez. "There are a few plays for every quarterback in their playbook.
"For Peyton Manning I am sure there are a million more but for me there are a select few plays that I really feel good about.
"You kind of have those in you toolbox.
"You go to it in your time of need. We needed it.
"I know I could have made the throw last year. I just don't know if I could have made the call."
(Editing by Alastair Himmer)