What to watch for in Jets-Browns on Thursday


Can the winless Browns f-i-n-a-l-l-y break through in the W column after back-to-back near misses to start the season? Can the Jets recapture their form from their Week 1 blowout win of the Lions?

Here's what to watch for in Thursday night's clash between the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns at 8:20 p.m. ET, exclusively airing on NFL Network:

1. Drafter's remorse?

In a perfect world, designed by and for the pleasures of 345 Park Avenue marketing executives, this mid-week clash would be a joint national coming-out party for the top two quarterbacks taken in the 2018 draft: Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold. For months leading up to the selection, Cleveland, owners of the No. 1 overall pick, seemed to waver publicly between Darnold and Josh Allen, only to, in the 11th hour, select the Heisman-winning Mayfield. The Jets were then gifted Darnold when their cross-stadium neighbors choose a running back with the second pick.

While Darnold has started the first two games of the season under center for New York, Mayfield has stood idly by on the Browns' sideline, watching teammate Tyrod Taylor complete a near-league worst 52.9 percent of his passes in Cleveland's first two games -- a heartbreaking tie and a tough loss. On a short week, there was no real expectation that Cleveland would start Mayfield against the Jets. But if Taylor struggles against New York's takeaway-happy defense, might the rookie get a chance to prove his draft position?

It would be especially embarrassing and cosmically poetic for Darnold's Jets to win in Cleveland's building while the nation watches on television and Mayfield watches powerlessly from the bench. Given the Browns' early-season proclivity for blowing very winnable games  -- and the franchise's whole aura -- this is entirely plausible and possible, if not probable. Is that what it would take for coach Hue Jackson to back off his insistence to have Mayfield sit the entire season behind Taylor? Would another poor result from Cleveland's much-improved roster force his hand? The drama around the Browns didn't end with Hard Knocks, folks. It's only just begun. 

2. Playing takeaway

You know what's hot in Cleveland? The Peanut punch. The Browns have forced a league-leading eight turnovers, including five fumbles, through two games. Cleveland's turnover differential (plus-6) is double that of the next best teams -- the undefeated Bengals and Rams. And yet, the Browns remain winless. Part of the problem is Cleveland has turned those eight turnovers into just 10 points.

In the young Darnold, the Browns defense has a perfect turnover-prone target to exploit for points. Darnold's first pass attempt in the pros was memorably taken back for six, and his two interceptions against the Dolphins in Week 2 essentially ripped 14 points off the board and swung the result in Miami's favor.

Not to be outdone in the turnover department are the Jets, who are second in the league with seven takeaways -- five interceptions courtesy of Detroit and two fumbles courtesy of Miami. But unlike the relatively careful Browns, New York has four giveaways on offense -- Darnold's three picks and a Robby Anderson fumble. In what should be a close, low-scoring affair, whichever team wins the turnover battle will be situated to win the war.

Bonus: Don't be surprised if special teams plays a factor in deciding this outcome as well. Cleveland showed kicker Zane Gonzalez, his fickle groin and his 40-percent field-goal percentage the door this week in favor of someone named Greg Joseph.

3. What's the rush?

I've got a quick trivia question for you, reader. Who leads the Browns in sacks? Don't cheat. Don't Google it. Don't even thinking about Bing-ing it. Hint: It's not Myles Garrett.

Give up? It's Larry Ogunjobi! A defensive tackle with just three career starts under his belt. The key to Cleveland's dynamite start on defense begins up front with young guys Ogunjobi, Garrett, Trevon Coley and Chris Smith -- average age: 24 years old. The Browns have forced three interceptions and tallied three sacks when rushing four guys or fewer. Thanks to Ogunjobi's interior pressure, plus lockdown cornerback coverage and well-timed blitzes from outside linebackers, Cleveland's defense is shaping up to be one of the most feared in the league.

That spells trouble for Spencer Long and New York's offensive line, which let Miami's front seven walk all over Darnold last week to the tune of four sacks for 46 yards.

4. New Jack City vs. the 'best receiving corps in the league'

It was only three months ago during minicamp that Josh Gordon and Jarvis Landry glowingly told reporters that the Browns boasted the NFL's top crop of wideouts. At the time, it was Landry, Gordon, Corey Coleman, Rashard Higgins, Antonio Callaway and others. Now only Landry, Higgins and Callaway remain, with Gordon in New England and Coleman and his sneakers on the Pats practice squad. Landry is far and away Taylor's top target so far (22 receptions for 175 yards), but the rookie Callaway looks to seize Gordon's leftover snaps and contend for attention.

It won't be easy for anyone in Cleveland's wide receiver room to break out Thursday night with the self-titled New Jack City on the green side of the line of the scrimmage. Thanks to that remade, swaggered-out secondary, the Jets are sixth in passing yards allowed per attempt (6.2) and third in opposing passer rating (64.7). The addition of lockdown corner Trumaine Johnson has so far kept opposing No. 1 receivers at bay. Second-year safety Jamal Adams resembles a freight train in both run and pass defense.

However, New York can be exploited in the slot, where Buster Skrine is prone to penalties. How Skrine's matchups with Landry and tight end David Njoku play out there could be the difference.

5. Win. Win. Win. Win. Win. **** everything else. Win. Win. Win. Win.

If the Browns lose Thursday evening they will become only the fourth club to go at least 20 games straight sans victory and the first since the 1976-77 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That's right. The first since an expansion team! The Browns are no longer a laughingstock in regard to how they play football; Cleveland should arguably be 2-0 and atop the AFC North at this very moment. But until this franchise earns a digit other than "0" in the wins column, the Browns will be a symbol of hopeless futility.

C'mon, Cleveland, it's been too damn long. It's time to let the Bud Light flow and the good times roll! Right? Right?!