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Sanchez steps forward with Jets' backs against the wall

The New York Jets spent this week embroiled in Trip-gate, which was the latest scene from a season of cinema that included Sainz-gate and Sterger-gate. With that issue swirling, Rex Ryan's boys had a far more pressing issue at hand on Sunday when they traveled to Pittsburgh to face the grisly Steelers: Don't-get-shown the gate.

Their once seemingly solid lock on a playoff berth had dissipated with two straight losses, inconsistent play from quarterback Mark Sanchez and some scrutinized dissection of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's play-calling.

Playoff picture

Mark Sanchez and the Jets came up with a big victory on Sunday that positions them well for the playoffs. Find out what they need to do to gain entrance to the postseason in our Playoff Picture.

Their punishment of fate seemed at hand, until Sanchez, Schottenheimer and the Jets showed again on Sunday that they are a playoff-worthy team that can be just as dangerous as the Patriots, Steelers and Ravens.

Defensive end Brett Keisel suggested that maybe the Steelers had gotten a little full of themselves after four straight wins. Yes, it was only one game, but the Jets played like a desperate team -- a team that wants it.

They competed knowing that if they lost, with a game at Chicago next week, they'd possibly fall out of the playoff picture and be used as a welcome mat at the House of Come Uppance for everyone who hates their bluster to wipe their feet on.

New York now stands at 10-4 and is in very good position to, at worst, secure a wild-card playoff berth over the final two weeks. It isn't safe by any means, but it is safer. It's safer because Sanchez snapped out of a funk that Schottenheimer helped him out of by designing a great short-route, rhythmically timed passing game that allowed the young QB to play with confidence.

Sanchez is the player who will dictate how far the Jets will go. If he doesn't make mistakes, the defense, run game and special teams are good enough for New York to roll with any team. It can't win if Sanchez has to manage the game, though. He has to make plays, like he did against the Steelers, with his legs as well as his arm.

On fourth-and-1 from the Steelers' 7-yard line in the third quarter, Sanchez faked a handoff to Shonn Greene that had everyone at Heinz Field piling on the running back at the 3-yard line. But Sanchez had the ball and bootlegged it around left end to tie the score 17-all.

He's athletic and skilled enough to execute the trickery and Schottenheimer trusted him to do it. It was the Jets' first offensive touchdown in 12 quarters, which shows how out of sync things were leading up to this breakthrough.

"It was pretty much the Six and Schotty show," wide receiver Jericho Cotchery said of Sanchez via his jersey number, and Schottenheimer. "Schotty was in a zone as well out there calling those plays."

The trust between the two is an ebb-and-flow vibe, which will have to flow from here on out if the Jets want to get through the AFC to the Super Bowl. Tight end Dustin Keller told me earlier this season that early on, the coaching staff wouldn't loosen the reins on Sanchez. When it did, Sanchez played better.

It is hard to tell whether that trust had fractured of late, but people in the NFL who had faced the Jets were saying Schottenheimer's tendencies had become easy to decipher, making it so defenses could be designed to make Sanchez look bad.

For instance, it became almost a given that New York would run on first down, so defenses set themselves to counter. If you could get them in second- or third-and-long you could confuse or pressure Sanchez into a mistake. That's the defensive formula against just about any quarterback, but the Jets, by most accounts, were making it easy on their opponents.

Of the Jets' eight possessions against the Steelers, five started with passes, sometimes out of "heavy" or run-based formations.

"Mark played a phenomenal game, but I think the reason he played that way was that he and Schotty had a great week together," wide receiver Braylon Edwards said. "We were able to stay on top of what we wanted to do. We didn't get forced to do what another team wanted us to do or get into a panic situation. We were able to stay forced, stay on time and stay on target with the plays that we like. We did that all day."

I was tipped off a few hours before the game that Sanchez was as dialed in and positive as he's been in awhile by someone close to Sanchez. He'd been down because he knew he didn't play well, and there are signs and stories about Sanchez's penchant for beating himself up when he doesn't perform up to his high standards. He's got the symptoms of a pleaser.

And before Sunday, he had suffered a lot of self-inflicted bruises. He entered the Pittsburgh game throwing an interception in eight straight games, four in the previous two.

"It felt good all the way around, even throughout the week," Sanchez admitted after the game. "Feel the offensive guys rally, not doing anything too different or trying too hard and just getting a win when we really needed one."

Sanchez, at least for a week, overcame a double whammy of Kryptonite to spur the win that got the Jets to 10 -- one more than last season when they advanced to the AFC Championship Game. He survived the Steelers' defense without a turnover and dispelled the notion the this SoCal boy couldn't play in the cold. The weather was ugly in Pittsburgh, just like it could be bad next week at Soldier Field and in the playoffs at Arrowhead Stadium or in Baltimore or Foxborough or New York.

Sanchez didn't have to face injured safety Troy Polamalu, but he also didn't have his starting right tackle Damien Woody. Schottenheimer called plays to exploit the middle of the Steelers' secondary -- slants, hooks and dig routes -- and Sanchez got rid of the ball. The offshoot was Pittsburgh paid attention to Sanchez, and New York stung the Steelers' league-best run defense by rushing for 106 yards.

The Jets are a good team and could be very dangerous in the playoffs. They left Pittsburgh feeling good about themselves, but they left feeling better because they aren't going into Chicago next weekend on a three-game losing streak with their postseason hopes tied to them winning out.

"We feel fortunate," cornerback Antonio Cromartie said, "to walk out of here with a victory."

Then he smiled and shook his head in relief.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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