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Jets Earn Win in Wildcard Battle

CINCINNATI - How dangerous are the New York Jets, now that they're the first NFL team this month to win a playoff game? Hard to say because, to be candid, this was against Cincinnati. And few teams leave a season with quite the thud the Bengals usually do.

But still. Let us applaud the Jets by noting the difference between what they were supposed to be, and what they are.

They were supposed to be on the downhill slide to nowhere, losing six of seven.

Now they've rolled into the second round, winning six of seven. In one week, they beat Cincinnati 37-0 when the Bengals weren't trying and 24-14 Saturday night when they were.

"We believe," safety Kerry Rhodes said, "we're the hottest team out there."

They were supposed to have a rookie quarterback who would be the deer most likely to be caught in the headlights. Mark Sanchez threw 20 interceptions this season, and why would anyone expect that problem to vanish in January, when the nights are frigid and the pressure boiling?

But Sanchez put together a solid, error-free game in a wind-chill factor of 9 degrees Saturday, completing 12 of 15 passes.

"He had the eye of the tiger today," coach Rex Ryan said. "I think he's tired of hearing he's the weak link on this football team."

They were supposed to be a team hardly noticed among the NFL juggernauts with all the glittering names and famous faces.

But the Jets won Saturday with enough side plots to make for a New York-style saga.

There was teary sentiment, when the game ball went to team owner Woody Johnson, whose 30-year-old daughter was found dead this week in her Los Angeles home.

There was minor panic, when punter Steve Weatherford developed an irregular heartbeat just before the game. Kicker Jay Feely, a nine-year veteran who punted once in college and thinks he might have done it once in high school, got his new assignment minutes before kickoff.

"My first thought was, 'Oh crap,' " Feely said later. "That was the most nervous I've ever been in an NFL game, on the first punt."

It went 33 yards, but at least not sideways into the parking lot. And he got better, actually pinning the Bengals deep a couple of times.

Then there was Sanchez's coming-of-age party.

He had ups and downs during the season, each twitch analyzed, a common fate for New York quarterbacks. But that's fine print now.

"This is when you need to turn it on," he said, sounding rather excited about this playoff business, like a fifth-grader getting his first look at Disney World.

"The entire country is watching this, and I get to say go?" he said. "They don't do anything until I say 'hut?' "

Good things happened for the Jets after a lot of his huts.

"The last three weeks have been smarter," he said of his development. "I just don't want to get us beat.

"I know what gets us beat. Turnovers."

Such wisdom leaves Ryan glowing.

"One of these days he's going to be the biggest thing we have on this football team," Ryan said. "Maybe that day's coming sooner rather than later."

All this was enough to put away the playoff-poor Bengals.

How many other teams would have a player break his leg on the opening kickoff?

Or have a highly reliable field goal kicker miss from 35 and 28 yards?

Or have their coach with such an itchy trigger finger on his red replay flag that he would lose two challenges and be out of them before the first quarter was over?

Or get 169 yards rushing from a running back - Cedric Benson - and still lose by 10 points?

The Bengals' last postseason win was the 1990 season. Current quarterback Carson Palmer was 11 years old.

Meanwhile, the Jets were supposed to be more lucky than good, getting their last two victories of the season against teams that rested starters and took a fall.

Now they act like they don't want to leave.

"People can say we backed in or whatever, I don't care how we got in," Ryan said. "We are going to be a tough out."

Next comes a trip to either Indianapolis or San Diego.

P.S. to the Jets. Peyton Manning plans on playing all four quarters this time.

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