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Panthers' Baker Mayfield eyes bigger goal after coming up short in bid for revenge against Browns

CHARLOTTE -- The best quarterback on either team had been banished and what was left in Deshaun Watson's wake -- the domino effect of his acquisition by the Cleveland Browns and subsequent 11-game suspension for violating the league's personal-conduct penalty -- was a glimpse into what teams who are still seeking their franchise quarterbacks look like.

Baker Mayfield was once that for the Browns and he will spend this season trying to prove he should be that again for the Panthers, or whoever else would like to sign him after this season, when he's due to become a free agent. His bitter departure from Cleveland, and the furious fourth-quarter comeback he nearly pulled off on Sunday, gave the Browns' 26-24 victory over the Panthers its undercurrent of import for two teams that otherwise looked flawed enough that both could struggle to remain in playoff contention.

After the game, Browns star pass rusher Myles Garrett, who sacked Mayfield on consecutive plays in the third quarter, spent a moment talking to Mayfield. He told his former quarterback, with whom he did not have the closest relationship, to "keep going."

"Everybody made this out to be the Super Bowl," said Mayfield, who admitted it would have been nice to have bragging rights over the Browns. "There's 16 more games. The Super Bowl is not until February. It's the beginning of September. We're going to flush this, we're going to learn, we're going to be better. 

"It's always good to see familiar faces," Mayfield added later. "Emotional? I wouldn't put too much into that. We didn't finish mostly because we didn't start fast."

For much of the game, the performances of both Mayfield and Jacoby Brissett, Cleveland's QB1 until Watson returns, did nothing to counter the cold calculation the Browns made in their pursuit of Watson -- if they want to win big, they needed Watson, considerable baggage be damned.

The Browns had 66 yards passing at halftime, and Mayfield fumbled four times in the game, recovering all of them. But Mayfield launched a 75-yard touchdown throw to Robbie Anderson with 6 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, and that, the Panthers have to hope, is a sign of what might be to come with more time together. Mayfield has had the Panthers playbook for just two months, since the July trade that brought him to Carolina just a few weeks before training camp opened. That is not the optimal way to position a quarterback -- any quarterback, on any team -- for success and Panthers fans let their displeasure with the early results be known with 10 minutes remaining in the second quarter of the season opener, when they booed for the first, but not the last, time of the day. Mayfield finished 16 of 27 for 235 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

"It was our first time playing together," said Panthers coach Matt Rhule. "Hoped we'd come out clicking right away. Knew we would click eventually.

"I think Baker stood in there and took all the bullets and made all the plays to get us back in the game down the stretch."

It remains to be seen how much Mayfield's arrival will ignite interest in the Panthers. The stadium was not full for the season opener, and of those that attended, there were noticeable pockets of Browns fans, which produced a weird, uncommon sight: Mayfield jerseys, some in Browns colors, some in Panthers colors, worn by people often seated side by side.

For as much as Brissett and Mayfield are joined in their post-Watson opportunities, they have distinctly different goals this season, reflecting the very different plights of their teams. Brissett's mandate is to try to keep the Browns afloat -- and perhaps playoff relevant -- until Watson's expected return in December. That won't be easy in the loaded AFC. Brissett was frequently inaccurate Sunday -- he was 18 of 34 for 147 yards, although he did move the Browns into position for the winning 58-yard field goal after the Panthers had taken the lead. Still, Brissett might not be capable of pulling the Browns out of a big hole the way Mayfield did -- the Panthers trailed 20-7 early in the fourth quarter, before Mayfield ran for a 7-yard touchdown to start the rally.

But the Browns' running game, the strength of the team even when Mayfield was under center, is still the strength. It rolled up 122 yards in the first half on Sunday, 217 in all and it allowed the Browns to hold the ball for more than 38 minutes of the game.

Mayfield, though, has a much bigger burden. He is trying to remake his career after the labrum tear that hindered him last season and his abrupt departure from Cleveland. Mayfield will be a free agent after this season and the Panthers' fortunes -- and perhaps Rhule's future, too -- will be inextricably linked to his own. He, too, could be helped by the running game, which was mostly absent early in the game, a fact that Rhule attributed to the Panthers frequently being in disadvantageous down-and-distance situations. When the Panthers finally started calling Christian McCaffrey's number late in the third quarter, they were able to move the ball and put themselves in position to win the game.

Rhule, though, placed the loss largely on the Panthers' inability to get off the field. The Browns ran 74 offensive plays, compared with just 50 for the Panthers. But Rhule also said the offense had to settle down, and he pointed to Mayfield’s 50-yard pass to Ian Thomas late in the second quarter, which set up Carolina's first score, as giving the Panthers some energy.

"We can't hesitate," Mayfield said. "We've got to be aggressive early. Got to be confident early. Don't wait for things to happen before we wake up."

Mayfield was clearly disappointed, but he also said the Panthers' mistakes, for which he took the blame, were fixable. Since he arrived in Carolina, he has avoided most inflammatory talk about the Browns. Mayfield seems to thrive with a chip on his shoulder, but after the game on Sunday, it sounded like he had pushed the chip to the side and is prepared, even anxious, to move on and go about the job of repairing his career and his future. Mayfield was asked how different it is to face his former team in the NFL compared with doing it in college, which is something he experienced after leaving Texas Tech for Oklahoma. Mayfield said there is much more emotion in college. Perhaps, then, this was just another hurdle, and not a particularly high one, for Mayfield to overcome. The Browns thought they could succeed without him. Now, he has to try to succeed without them.

"I'm a fighter," Mayfield said. "I fought my whole life. That's not going to change. Sixteen more games. We're going to be in games. We're not going to give up. That's not the culture we have. It's not what I'm ever going to accept."

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