By DENNIS WASZAK Jr.
AP Sports Writer
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) - Mark Sanchez is still the face of the franchise.
He also is still the New York Jets' starting quarterback.
It's not Tim Tebow. At least not now. And Sanchez's teammates and coaches insist that will not change.
Not next week. Not next month. Not this season.
While Tebow's role remains limited through seven games, it has become clear Sanchez is still the team leader. Whether that leads to a third postseason appearance in four seasons, or a second straight early end remains to be seen. But with the pressure on and many fans and media calling for Tebow to take over, Sanchez has rallied the past few weeks and re-established himself as the starting quarterback.
"That's how he is, and that's what he does," center Nick Mangold said Thursday. "Lesser people would have cracked earlier. He's done a fantastic job."
Maybe not so much from a statistical standpoint, but certainly from the perspective of remaining even-keeled during the handful of highs and lows already this season. He threw three touchdown passes in the season opener against Buffalo, but struggled in the next few by completing less than 50 percent of his throws in four straight games.
His 96.0 quarterback rating the last two weeks ranks him first in the AFC in that category during that span. Sanchez is coming off a 328-yard passing effort, the fourth-highest total of career, against New England and had one of his best all-around performances in a the 29-26 overtime loss.
Still, the lasting image of that game for many was the final play in which Sanchez was sacked and lost the football, sealing the win for the Patriots.
"I really can't fault Mark on that," offensive coordinator Tony Sparano said. "He got hit from the back and that's the way it came out."
Sanchez appeared somewhat upbeat after the loss, and former Jets star Joe Klecko, an analyst for SportsNet New York, even recently said that the quarterback might have become "a good loser."
"The guy definitely has a lot of emotion and he's a passionate player," said tight end Konrad Reuland, who grew up with Sanchez in Southern California. "He plays with passion and he's definitely a competitor, there's no doubt about that, despite what people are saying in the media or people or tweeting or whatever.
"I know the guy wants to win more than anything, so it's always good lining up next to a guy who'll do whatever it takes."
Now the Jets (3-4) are preparing for a critical home game against the AFC East-rival Miami Dolphins (3-3), a team they beat earlier in the season but is coming off a bye-week break and a two-game winning streak.
"I think we're just starting to hit our stride on offense," Sanchez said. "You saw a lot of it last game, we just have to keep playing. We have our running game going a little better now, since the last time we played them. That's really an important part as well. We're definitely an improving group.
"Really, since the San Francisco game (four weeks ago), just looking back at it, we've played some of our best football since then. I'm proud of that."
Coach Rex Ryan has been perhaps Sanchez's biggest supporter since the day the Jets traded up in the draft in 2009 to select him fifth overall. But he appeared to waffle a bit during the height of Sanchez's struggles when he said he was the starting quarterback "this week."
Many assumed that was a crack in the confidence, the first indication that Tebow could perhaps step in as the starter and send Sanchez to the bench.
Not so fast.
"I just think Mark is improving as a quarterback," Ryan said earlier this week. "We see it. I think statistically, (the New England game) was one of the best games that he's had. ... I thought he was tremendous. In that kind of environment, that kind of atmosphere, it kind of felt like almost a playoff-game type atmosphere and he was at his best. I'm excited about that. It all starts with the protection. We've all said, give this young man time to throw the football down the field, he can be effective."
Shonn Greene has been better in recent weeks, including a 161-yard effort against Indianapolis, and the return of tight end Dustin Keller from a hamstring injury has certainly been a boost for Sanchez and the rest of the offense.