CLEVELAND — It turned into Sam Darnold vs. Baker Mayfield after all.
Even if that’s not the way it was supposed to be.
In the end, it was Mayfield who electrified a Browns team that hadn’t won a game in the last 635 days, leading Cleveland to a 21-17 comeback win Thursday night before a raucous crowd at FirstEnergy Stadium.
The Browns had hoped to bring along Mayfield slowly, allowing him to learn behind veteran starter Tyrod Taylor. But after Taylor suffered a concussion late in the second quarter, Mayfield walked onto the field to a tremendous ovation from Browns fans starved for a winning quarterback.
The Browns went with Oklahoma’s Mayfield over Darnold, the renowned USC quarterback, with the first pick of the draft last April, giving the Jets a shot at Darnold at No. 3. Darnold earned the starting job in training camp, while Mayfield, never had a shot at unseating Taylor.
And if things play out the way the Jets and Browns hope, this could be a years-long rivalry between this year’s top two rookie quarterbacks.
“I know Baker’s a great player,” Darnold said. “They rallied around him. At the same time, I have to do better.”
For Darnold, this was the third game in an 11-day stretch to start the season, a daunting challenge for any quarterback, no less a 21-year-old who became the youngest rookie quarterback to start on opening day since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
Cleveland’s high-pressure defensive scheme gave Darnold and the Jets’ offensive line problems through much of the game, and Darnold didn’t have the time to set his feet in the pocket on many of his throws. He was just 5-of-12 for 45 yards and no touchdowns in the first half. On the positive side, he didn’t have any interceptions, although one of his passes should have been picked off by linebacker Joe Schobert.
That would change by the game’s end.
The Jets did manage to take a 14-0 lead in the first half, taking advantage of a blocked punt on their first touchdown drive and then Darnold producing another touchdown on his next possession. That drive was finished off by Isaiah Crowell, who ran three times from the Cleveland 11 and finished things off with a two-yard scoring run. After scoring, Crowell, a former Browns running back, was flagged for an unsportsmanlike penalty for rubbing the football on his rear end before throwing it into the crowd.
Once Mayfield replaced Taylor, who had been just 4-for-14 for 19 yards before getting hurt, you could feel the energy build and the momentum shift. On his first drive, he completed three passes to get the Browns on the board with a 46-yard field goal just before halftime.
The Browns made it 14-6 after another field goal drive in the third quarter, and then tied it after a seven-play, 69-yard drive, with Mayfield again looking sharp.
The tying points came on a two-point conversion in which the Browns used a play similar to the Philly Special that the Eagles ran against the Patriots in last season’s Super Bowl. This time, it was Mayfield who caught the ball in the end zone to tie it.
But Darnold calmly put the Jets into the lead again, 17-14, driving them 65 yards in 12 plays in 6:46. 28-yard field goal by Jason Myers with 8:56 to play in the fourth quarter.
And Mayfield came right back with another impressive drive, leading the Browns on a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive by shredding an increasingly tired Jets’ defense. Carlos Hyde finished off the drive with a one-yard run to give Cleveland its first lead of the game, 21-17, with 2:04 to play.
By the end, Darnold had failed the Jets. After a clutch fourth-down completion to Jermaine Kearse, he panicked and tried to force a pass to Kearse that was intercepted by Schobert and doused the Jets’ final hopes. He threw another interception on a last-minute drive.
“I’ve just got to play better, that’s on me,” said Darnold, who was 15-for-31 for 169 yards, no touchdown and two interceptions for a 38.2 rating. “Not acceptable the way I played. Take it like a man. I feel responsible for the stagnant offense. Have to continue to find completions.”
Round 1 goes to Mayfield.