For most of the first half of Thursday night's game between the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns, it appeared fans would be forced to endure the sort of slog that has come to define these prime-time contests. A choppy Jets team led by No. 3 draft pick Sam Darnold was having its way with an opponent that could do nothing offensively.
But when Cleveland quarterback Tyrod Taylor left the game just before halftime with a concussion, everything changed. A yawner became a barnburner. There was a furious comeback by No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield and the Browns. An answer from Darnold and the Jets. An answer to that answer. The first victory for Cleveland in 635 days.
And a glimpse into the NFL's future at the game's most important position.
The first half was all Darnold and the Jets. New York seized a 14-0 lead behind tailbacks Isaiah Crowell and Bilal Powell and a stifling defense that dominated the line of scrimmage. And the game wasn't as close as the score implied.
Taylor was a nightmare, having completed just four of 14 passes for 19 yards. Factor in the 22 yards he lost on sacks, and the starting QB cost the Browns three yards over almost two quarters.
How is that possible?
Darnold wasn't tearing it up, but he was making short throws when needed. The Jets were establishing a recipe for success with their young quarterback: Bang away on the ground. Keep Darnold in favorable down-and-distance situations. Play defense. And win with something of an old-school flair.
And then, just like that…the Mayfield era began.
From the moment he walked onto the playing field, the mood in FirstEnergy Stadium changed. When Mayfield led the Browns to a field goal just before intermission (posting better stats in one minute than Taylor did in 28), a palpable buzz moved through the venue.
While speaking to the NFL Network's postgame show, Mayfield said he could feel it:
"I felt the energy. It was an unbelievable feeling. When we got that first field goal, they were happy about that, first of all. But then the defense started playing well and you just…felt it. That builds confidence in us. You feel that energy and thrive off of it. We got a couple plays going—got the chains moving. It's unbelievable what that does for the offensive line. We've got a young guy [rookie UDFA Desmond Harrison] starting at left tackle. The confidence for him is an unbelievable thing to have."
That energy continued building. When rookie cornerback Denzel Ward forced a fumble that led to a third-quarter field goal—closing the score to 14-6—the crowd erupted. When tailback Carlos Hyde cut Cleveland's deficit to two, it got even louder. And when Jarvis Landry hit Mayfield with the two-point conversion pass that tied the game, the place went wild.
Darnold then did his best to spoil the party. After the Jets surrendered 14 unanswered points, Darnold led New York 65 yards in 12 plays, highlighted by a 14-yard laser to Jermaine Kearse on 3rd-and-10. When the Jets retook the lead, Brown fans could be forgiven for having flashbacks to so many games of the past two years, when their team squandered advantages and lost in every way imaginable.
But Mayfield wasn't having it. Looking more like a 10-year-veteran than a rookie in his first regular-season game, Mayfield matter-of-factly drove the Browns 75 yards to take the lead with just over two minutes left.
Afterward, the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner did his best to deflect praise.
"I didn't do this by myself," he said, "and I'm not going to handle it that way. I had a lot of guys play well without me. You talk about a guy, No. 80 [Landry], fighting through an injury all week and then coming out and playing great. We had great defensive play. We put the pieces together."
Mayfield's right that Landry played well. And that a Cleveland defense that forced three turnovers balled out—again. But the comeback? That was all Baker.
Mayfield finished the game 17-of-23 for 201 yards. And, to be fair, his completion percentage should have been higher. But he pushed the ball down the field into tight windows time and again. Mayfield orchestrated a comeback the likes of which the NFL hasn't seen in over 50 years:
He made general manager John Dorsey look like a genius for drafting him. And he made head coach Hue Jackson look like a buffoon for not starting him sooner. That Jackson wouldn't commit to Mayfield after the game as his Week 4 starter is the most damning indictment of him as a head coach.
Hue. Come on, buddy. Even you aren't that…you.
A night that ended in jubilation for Mayfield and the Browns ended in disappointment for Darnold, who struggled during the second half outside the scoring drive. By night's end, Darnold completed 48.4 percent of his passes, and the turnovers that were his undoing both at USC and last week against the Dolphins cost him again.
But against Miami, Darnold became the youngest NFL player to throw for over 300 yards. The 1-2 Jets have blown out the Detroit Lions and lost by single digits to the Dolphins and Browns. There have been bumps in the road. But there has also been ample reason for optimism that the Jets have their franchise quarterback. There's hope.
That's the biggest takeaway from Thursday's thriller—for both teams. Yes, one squad won, and one lost. But let's be realistic: Neither the Jets nor the Browns will do anything in January except watch the playoffs on TV like the rest of us.
But these franchises will soon go from also-rans to contenders. From postseason spectators to participants. Two of the NFL's longest-suffering franchises at quarterback have reason to believe this time—finally—they got it right.
Thursday's game will be known for how Mayfield's NFL debut unfolded—for a frenetic half that culminated in Cleveland's first win since Christmas Eve…2016.
What a debut it was. For lack of a better phrase: He was amazing.
But in the grand scheme of things, Week 3 brought with it more than just the final score. It was a tease of sorts for two franchises that can look to the future with anticipation instead of the creeping dread that has defined them for so long.
Even more than the first Browns win in a long time, that's cause for celebration.
I hear there was free beer.