Welcome to the show, Baker Mayfield.
The No. 1 overall pick entered Thursday's game at FirstEnergy Stadium with his team facing a 14-0 deficit against the New York Jets and led a dramatic comeback to give the Cleveland Browns their first win since Christmas Eve 2016 (635 days ago). Mayfield finished 17-of-23 for 201 yards, while Carlos Hyde scored the winning touchdown with less than three minutes remaining in the 21-17 victory.
Cleveland is 1-1-1, while New York fell to 1-2 behind No. 3 overall pick Sam Darnold after he threw interceptions to Joe Schobert and Terrance Mitchell on what could have been winning drives.
Baker Mayfield Changes Fabric of Browns Offense
Mayfield entered the game in the second quarter because of injury, as the Browns announced starter Tyrod Taylor suffered a concussion, but the writing was on the wall.
Taylor was an ugly 4-of-14 for 19 yards and drew loud boos and "we want Baker" chants from the crowd. A blocked punt set up New York's first touchdown, but Taylor missed multiple throws and appeared uncomfortable while dealing with consistent pressure.
His struggles were obvious on a floating, underthrown deep ball to a wide-open Antonio Callaway and an intentional grounding in the back of the end zone, which ruined a scoring chance.
By contrast, Mayfield unleashed darts immediately and provided a spark to both the crowd and the offense. He not only prevented what could have been a blowout, but he also helped tie the game in the third quarter with a perfectly placed strike to Jarvis Landry. That set up a Hyde touchdown and a Mayfield reception on the ensuing trick two-point play.
He also found four different receivers on the winning drive and didn't hesitate to spread around the ball.
Cleveland selected the Oklahoma product No. 1 in this year's draft to guide the franchise into the future, but his learning curve has been accelerated. He is mobile enough to keep plays alive behind a worrisome offensive line and demonstrated the arm strength necessary to thread passes into tight windows.
His ceiling and ability to hurt the opponent in multiple ways elevate the offense, as receivers don't have to worry about underthrown deep balls, and defenses cannot stack the box against Hyde.
Mayfield can gather additional confidence, as Cleveland's next three opponents are a combined 2-4 (Oakland Raiders, Baltimore Ravens and Los Angeles Chargers). This is a new offense, and the combination of Hyde's downhill running, the playmakers at receiver and Mayfield give the Browns reason for optimism.
Jets Must Use Strong Run Game to Ease Darnold's Learning Curve
The palpable excitement surrounding the Browns stood in stark contrast to the Jets' situation after the No. 3 overall pick struggled on the national stage.
Darnold finished 15-of-31 for 169 yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions, as he consistently failed to make downfield plays. Quincy Enunwa was the only receiver with more than 35 yards, and most of his 57 came after the catch on underneath screens.
The one bright spot for the Jets offense was a strong rushing attack that saw Bilal Powell run for 73 yards on 14 carries and Isaiah Crowell find the end zone twice against his former team.
The two late interceptions from Darnold made it clear he isn't ready to take over games. New York's best course in the early stages of his development is to remain ahead of the chains with its ground game.
This will take some of the pressure off Darnold's shoulders to make downfield plays until he is more comfortable.
A conservative approach may also prevent a blowout in the next game against the Jaguars, considering Jacksonville's defense is arguably the league's best and is coming off a victory over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. The Jets will need the rushing attack and short passing game to prevent what could be a step backward from their rookie.
Browns Defense Key to Team's AFC North Rise
While Mayfield will garner the headlines, Cleveland's defense was just as responsible for the win.
It allowed only three second-half points and kept the Browns within striking distance in the first as Taylor struggled. One of New York's touchdowns came on a 28-yard drive, so it's hard to hold Cleveland's defense responsible for the early deficit.
The AFC North is suddenly wide-open, as the reigning champion Pittsburgh Steelers are still without a win, and Cleveland's defense has the playmakers at various levels to propel it into contention.
This unit entered Thursday's contest with three interceptions, seven sacks and five fumble recoveries. It also used the two critical late interceptions to ice the win. Rookie cornerback Denzel Ward continued his hot start with a forced and recovered fumble to set up a field goal during the comeback.
As Myles Garrett terrorizes opposing quarterbacks every time they drop back and Ward makes plays in the secondary, the Browns defense could be a force for years.
Both teams face AFC opponents on the road in Week 4. The Browns will take on the Oakland Raiders, and the Jets will visit the Jacksonville Jaguars.