DETROIT — The Sam Darnold Era could not have started any better for the Jets.
It didn’t look as if that would be the case when the rookie quarterback threw a pick-6 on his first NFL pass attempt, on the Jets’ very first offensive play of the season. But Darnold learned and made up for that mistake, and the Jets forced the Lions into five picks of their own.
Darnold, at 21 the youngest Week 1 starting quarterback since the 1970 merger, won his debut behind a dominant performance by the Jets overall. They scored 31 unanswered third-quarter points and demolished the Lions, 48-17, Monday night before a stunned and disgusted crowd at Ford Field.
The Jets picked off Matthew Stafford four times and Matt Cassel once. They had their first defensive touchdown since 2013 and their first special-teams touchdown since 2012.
Who saw this coming? Be honest.
Darnold was 16-for-21 for 198 yards, two touchdowns and the one interception. After Quandre Diggs’ 37-yard TD return just 20 seconds into Darnold’s career, the No. 3 overall pick from USC showed the stuff that has everyone believing the Jets drafted the franchise quarterback to lead them for the next 10 to 15 years.
“He didn’t flinch,” Todd Bowles said after his team spoiled former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s head-coaching debut. “He didn’t even blink. He got it out of the way. Nobody flinched on the sideline. He came back and played good football.”
Darnold admitted he was nervous on that interception, but he refocused after he went to the sideline. When he came back, he displayed poise and resilience and his trademark mobility, leading three first-half scoring drives. He threw his first touchdown pass, connecting with Robby Anderson on a 41-yarder that gave the Jets a 17-7 lead in the first half.
“I put it behind me,” Darnold said. “It was, ‘Oh, shoot,' and then it was, ‘OK, here we go. It can’t get much worse than that.’ That kind of thinking was going in my head. We have a really, really good team. I knew if I did my job, take what the defense gave me, I knew I was going to be able to go out there and look back and have a successful game.”
This was as complete a game as the Jets could play.
Darnold’s receivers made plays and the line gave him time to throw. He was sacked just twice. Isaiah Crowell gained 102 yards on 10 carries and scored two touchdowns, including a 62-yard burst. The Jets ran for 169 yards. Andre Roberts had two big punt returns and scored on a 78-yarder. And the defense made Stafford look like the more inexperienced quarterback.
This was a defense without two starters: safety Marcus Maye (foot) and linebacker Josh Martin (concussion). They had nearly half as many picks as all of last year, when they made 11. Linebacker Darron Lee picked off Stafford twice, and returned one for a 36-yard score. Second-year safety Jamal Adams had his first career interception.
Stafford was 27-for-46 for 286 yards, most of them after the game was decided.
“We knew we were capable of this,” Lee said.
The Jets led 24-17 when tackle Henry Anderson was bearing down on Stafford. Just before Stafford got hit, he threw it to Lee, who did the rest, putting the Jets up by two touchdowns. It became three not long after that. Following a three-and-out by the Lions, they punted to Roberts, who already had a 43-yard punt return that set up the Jets’ first score. This time, Roberts did most of the work — with some solid blocking — and walked a tightrope down the left sideline for the touchdown and a 38-17 lead with seven minutes left in the third.
The Jets weren’t done for the quarter. Lee’s second pick led to a Jason Myers field goal that made it 41-17. On the next series, Crowell busted out for his long score.
It was a bad decision by Darnold that led to Diggs’ interception and return. Darnold was on the move and threw it diagonally across the field, intended for Bilal Powell. Darnold let it hang up there too long, and Diggs swooped in, picked it off and scored untouched.
“I was licking my chops a little bit too much on that play,” Darnold said. “I thought I had him. When I released it, I saw the defender and thought ‘Oh, shoot.’ After that, it is what it is. You put it behind you and play the game. That’s what I did. I thought the whole team responded really well.”
Darnold rebounded quickly. Two series later, he led his first scoring drive after Roberts’ 43-yard return put the Jets on the Lions’ 32. Darnold took it from there. He completed all three of his attempts, and all to Quincy Enunwa. Darnold made a brilliant play on third-and-7. Under pressure, he rolled out, avoided the sack and rifled it to Enunwa, who made an equally tough play, catching the ball before he and it hit the ground for an 8-yard gain. On the next play, Crowell ran it in from 6 yards for his first touchdown as a Jet.
The defense gave Darnold the ball right back. Morris Claiborne intercepted Stafford, who underthrew Marvin Jones Jr. near midfield. The Jets took advantage of the turnover and good field position, converting it into a 35-yard Myers field goal and a 10-7 lead.
On the next series, Trumaine Johnson intercepted a shaky Stafford, but Johnson was drilled by Kenny Golladay on the return, fumbled, and the Lions recovered. They didn’t capitalize, though, as Matt Prater missed a 55-yard field-goal try.
The Jets took a 10-point advantage with just under 2 minutes remaining in the half.
Coming out of the two-minute warning and facing third-and-2, Darnold dropped back and got good protection. He scanned the field and found Anderson down the left sideline. Anderson made a great play, beating Tavon Wilson for the ball with 1:51 to go.
The Lions closed to 17-10 on Prater’s 21-yard field goal with 15 seconds left in the half. Momentum seemed to be shifting when the Lions scored on their first drive after halftime. The Jets put up little resistance as Stafford completed all four of his passes. Three of them went to Golden Tate, who scored on a 24-yarder.
But Darnold and the Jets answered right back. They went 75 yards on six plays, capped by Enunwa’s 21-yard touchdown pass from Darnold. Myers’ extra point put the Jets up 24-17, and they never let up.
“That’s big time,” Johnson said of Darnold’s play. “I always had confidence in him. I practice against him every day. He has that 'it' factor. He’s a gamer. Coming from a pick-6 first throw, you don’t see rookie quarterbacks do what he did tonight. I’m proud of him.”