Not to a team the Jets had never beaten on the road. Not even after successive demoralizing losses led to speculation they were collapsing.
Sanchez didn't lose it. But before he could celebrate, he waited out two agonizing minutes as one of the NFL's best last-gasp quarterbacks nearly stole a victory the Jets desperately needed.
Sanchez stood up to the pressure created by the Steelers' defense and his team's two-game losing streak, scrambling for the Jets' first offensive touchdown in 12 quarters and leading a decisive field-goal drive as New York beat Pittsburgh 22-17 on Sunday.
"We wanted to get to 10 wins, that was our goal, and I'm really proud of the guys for rallying," said Sanchez, who played terribly in losses to the Patriots (45-3) and Dolphins (10-6).
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He's also very, very relieved the Steelers didn't rally. The Jets (10-4) held on to win even as Ben Roethlisberger drove the Steelers from their own 8 to New York's 10 in the final 2:08, only to throw incomplete on the final two plays.
"This win might surprise a lot of people, but it didn't surprise us," said coach Rex Ryan, who showed his team's toughness by going without a sideline jacket on a 25-degree day. "We needed it huge. There's no question."
Despite losing, the Steelers (10-4) were told by the NFL nearly an hour after the game ended that they secured a playoff spot via a series of complicated strength-of-schedule tiebreakers.
Pittsburgh also owns the division tiebreaker and will beat out Baltimore (10-4) for the AFC North title if it defeats Carolina on Thursday and Cleveland on Jan. 2.
"We've just got to win two more games, very winnable games, teams we match up well against," safety Ryan Clark said. "We still can win this division."
The Jets, nearing a playoff spot, won in Pittsburgh for the first time after going 0-7 there since the 1970 merger. Only two NFL teams have longer winless streaks in an opposing city during that span.
"It was a relief," right tackle Wayne Hunter said. "It really was a relief, and a big burden off our shoulders."
Especially Sanchez's shoulders. He went 19 of 29 for 170 yards against a No. 4-ranked defense that was missing injured safety Troy Polamalu (Achilles' tendon), with Braylon Edwards making eight catches for 100 yards. New York won in one of the NFL's most difficult road venues despite being outgained 378-276.
|New York Jets|
|Mark Sanchez was poised in the pocket, the offensive line pushed back the Steelers front seven, and LaDainian Tomlinson ran hard. The defense made the key stops when they had to.|
|The offense moved the ball well and Rashard Mendenhall broke the 100-yard plateau. The defense didn't get much pressure on Mark Sanchez. The missed block that lead to a Jets safety was a back breaker.|
|By Brian Carson|
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Sanchez was sacked only once, and didn't throw an interception for the first time in nine games.
"It's been a tough couple of weeks, but when he stood up in that huddle and he said, 'I'm going to play better. I'm not going to continue to turn the ball over' ... you had to believe the guy," running back LaDainian Tomlinson said.
The Steelers believed they were going to win it, too.
"It was nerve-racking," Edwards said.
Roethlisberger (23 of 44, 264 yards) repeatedly kept the final drive going, finding rookie Emmanuel Sanders for 29 yards on third-and-24, Mike Wallace for 18 on third-and-10 and Antonio Brown for 16 on third-and-10 before failing to connect with Sanders and tight end Matt Spaeth on the final two plays.
"I told the guys, let's be great, let's go down the field and score. We got close, but not close enough," Roethlisberger said.
Spaeth, filling in for the injured Heath Miller (concussion) as the top tight end, earlier had a 9-yard TD catch that finished off a 16-play, 96-yard drive that tied it at 7.
Pittsburgh later took its first lead at 17-10 on Rashard Mendenhall's 2-yard run. The Steelers, winners of their previous four, shook off Brad Smith's 97-yard kickoff return on the game's opening play to take that lead, but couldn't hold it.
Sanchez fooled the NFL's best run defense by faking a handoff before racing into the end zone untouched on a tying 7-yard TD run in the third quarter.
"We practiced it against our defense and it caught them off guard," Sanchez said. "It was a great call at the right time."
The Jets ran for 106 yards against a defense that came in allowing 60 yards rushing per game.
Sanchez followed his TD run by hitting Edwards for 16 yards on a key third-and-9 play, leading to Nick Folk's go-ahead 34-yard field goal on a snow-splattered turf with 10:07 remaining. Folk hit earlier from 25 yards.
|Sun. Dec. 19||Final|
|TD||Brad Smith, 97 Yd kick return (Nick Folk kick is good), 14:48.|
|TD||Matt Spaeth, 9 Yd pass from Ben Roethlisberger (Shaun Suisham kick is good), 7:29. Drive: 16 plays, 96 yards in 8:12.|
|FG||Nick Folk, 25 Yd, 2:48. Drive: 9 plays, 56 yards in 4:41.|
|FG||Shaun Suisham, 42 Yd, 0:33. Drive: 10 plays, 53 yards in 2:15.|
|TD||Rashard Mendenhall, 2 Yd run (Shaun Suisham kick is good), 9:03. Drive: 9 plays, 74 yards in 5:57.|
|TD||Mark Sanchez, 7 Yd run (Nick Folk kick is good), 5:14. Drive: 8 plays, 66 yards in 3:49.|
|FG||Nick Folk, 34 Yd, 10:07. Drive: 13 plays, 50 yards in 6:47.|
|SAFETY||Jason Taylor, 2:38.|
|Players of the Game|
|A. Randle El||1||8||0||8|
|Complete Player Stats|