This week’s NFL ratings will show that an average of around 8 million people watched Thursday night’s Rams-Raiders classic on Amazon Prime Video. But when Baker Mayfield started the Rams’ penultimate drive, down 16-3 with just over 12 minutes left in the game, the entire viewing audience probably consisted entirely of Rams fans, Raiders fans, desperate Thursday night gamblers and me … and I was paying about as much attention to the game as Al Michaels, who sounded like he was phoning it in from the Men’s Grill at Riviera.
And then, sports did what sports does, enrapturing all 38 of us still watching what had been, up to then, messy roadkill of a game. You wouldn’t watch a crappy three-hour movie on the off chance the final 10 minutes would be exceptional. You wouldn’t sit through a godawful meal hoping that a strong dessert would redeem it all. But a three-hour football game – four if we’re talking college – might deliver something we’ve never seen before ... like a quarterback leaping off the plane and rallying his new team to a dramatic victory.
Mayfield — who touched down in Los Angeles exactly 46 hours prior to kickoff — navigated the Rams over 173 yards in two drives that ended in touchdowns, the capper a brilliant 23-yard touchdown pass that nestled in Van Jefferson's arms as gently as if Mayfield was handing over a baby. Just like that, the woeful defending Super Bowl champions had a most unexpected victory, and everyone outside of Raiders fans — and anyone who picked Vegas to cover — went to bed happy.
This was the second straight NFL game where a quarterback orchestrated a masterful comeback from a 16-3 deficit. But Monday night’s game had Tom Brady in the pocket, so the question wasn’t really if he’d come back to beat the Saints, just how much time he’d need to do it. (Two minutes and 20 seconds, as it turned out.)
Coming into Thursday night, Mayfield didn’t even rise to the level of “damaged goods.” He was more like the NFL’s version of a Goodwill donation you throw in the bin on New Year’s Eve afternoon to get the tax writeoff, a fallen-from-grace QB who — if you believed the critics — had apparently forgotten how to hold a football, much less read a secondary or run a two-minute offense.
On Thursday night, though, Mayfield ran two consecutive do-or-die drives with a hell of a lot more confidence and precision than a lot of other starting QBs could manage … and he did so likely without even knowing the names of several teammates on the field with him. Whether he rejuvenates his career or whether this was his last highlight doesn’t matter right now; he did exactly what he was supposed to do, and he won the NFL’s acclaim for doing so. Patrick Mahomes, Cordarrelle Patterson, JJ Watt and many others lit up Twitter with congratulations and admiration.
Rams-Raiders also makes an interesting counterpart to the ongoing World Cup. Most of the eight, or 15, or 20 million fans who watch an NFL game would likely say that soccer is too boring, but the irony is that Thursday night’s game was as close to a World Cup game, in terms of emotional intensity, as the generally score-happy NFL gets. One team goes up big, by the equivalent of 2-nil, and then the other team flips the entire affair with two late scores. Boredom and ennui, then tension, then euphoria … it’s all right there.
Like a stoppage-time World Cup victory, Thursday night’s game is exactly why sports fans persevere, why we all still remain fascinated with kids’ games for our entire lives. It’s the payoff for spending hours, seasons, lifetimes watching these games. Unlike movies, the ending isn't predetermined; unlike music or art, repeat experiences won't bring the same joy. A sudden, unexpected victory is a joy to behold, whether it's a driveway HORSE game or the Super Bowl. And it's always, always a possibility.
On Monday, the Cardinals play the Patriots in a game that literally no one would describe as must-watch. It’s probably pushing our luck to the breaking point to hope for a third straight miracle weeknight finish … but hey, you never know. And that’s why we’ll end up watching.
Contact Jay Busbee at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.