Tonight's game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the New York Jets is more than a showdown between traditional AFC strugglers who suddenly have the playoffs within reach, more even than two former USC stars going toe to toe.
It's a quarterback versus his ball boy.
That's right, Jets rookie Mark Sanchez was a ball boy at Santa Margarita High in Mission Viejo when Palmer was the starting quarterback. The two wound up playing for the Trojans, and both were first-round picks: Palmer No. 1 overall in 2003, and Sanchez fifth in April.
When he was preparing for the draft last winter, Sanchez frequently mentioned he modeled his approach after that of Palmer. And the rookie didn't stray from that this week when speaking to Cincinnati reporters in advance of this win-and-we're-in game for the Jets.
"Anything I could possibly have a question about, he's always open to talk about," Sanchez said. "He always has little bits of wisdom for me, things he's seen as a pro and college player, that could possibly help me."
The biggest help Palmer could provide tonight is staying on the sidelines. The Bengals do not have a lot to gain by playing their starters -- they will be seeded third or fourth -- and they might also take a conservative approach because it's quite possible they could wind up playing host to the Jets in a first-round game.
If the Bengals do rest their starters, they will be the second Jets opponent to do so -- the first being the Indianapolis Colts, who replaced Peyton Manning, among others, last Sunday.
That helped pop open a door of opportunity for the Jets -- and put a bow on a season Sanchez called "definitely the most fun I've ever had." (That despite a string of up-and-down performances and injuries to both knees.)
"It's almost a year since playing in the Rose Bowl," Sanchez said last week, "and look how far I've come. . . . It's everything I could have dreamed of and more."
-- Sam Farmer