Ravens (10-4) @ Browns (5-9)
The Ravens travel to Cleveland this weekend to take on the Browns. While B’More has never lost to the Brownies in the Harbaugh/Flacco era (5-0), things haven’t exactly been easy for the purple and black in the Forest City. In 2008, Cleveland jumped out to a 27-13 3rd quarter lead before the Ravens rallied for the game’s final 24 points and a 37-27 victory. Last year, on “Monday Night Football,” the Ravens ended the first half locked in a 0-0 tie with the 1-7 Browns. They managed only one offensive touchdown, a Ray Rice 13-yard run, on their way to an ugly 16-0 win.
The 2010 Browns have been one of the NFL’s most schizophrenic teams. They beat the New Orleans Saints 30-17 in the Superdome in Week 7, then pasted the New England Patriots 34-14 in Week 9, and took the New York Jets to overtime in Week 10. They seem to have hit a bit of a wall of late though, losing their last two in Buffalo and Cincinnati. Cleveland finishes the season with two home games against the hated Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers though, and will be eager to provide bumps in the playoff road for one or both of their division rivals.
We all remember Browns’ running back Peyton Hillis barreling through the Ravens defense like a freight train in Week 3 in Baltimore. Hillis racked up 144 yards as the Browns took the Ravens to “the wire” in their home opener. Ray Lewis remembers as well, and has been very outspoken this week in his assertions that Hillis won’t have the same type of success this time around.
Via the Carroll County Times:
“It won’t happen again,” Lewis said. “I hope they understand that. We’re not coming in there to overlook them or nothing and we definitely aren’t coming in there to give him over 100 yards again. So hopefully they can buckle up all their chin straps and do whatever you need to do, but we’re definitely coming in to play a very physical football game.”
“A blind cat will find a meal every once in a while,” Lewis said. “We understand the two big runs we gave up against them.My son could have run through the holes that we gave him in Baltimore.
Those are some big words from the Ravens’ defensive leader. After shutting down the Saints’ running game (1.9 yards per play) last week, the Ravens feel like they have found their stride on that side of the ball. Hillis represents the biggest weapon the Browns possess, so shutting him down is priority number one.
It will also be the Ravens’ first look at rookie quarterback Daniel “Colt” McCoy. McCoy took over in Week 6, but missed three games with injury. In his six starts, Cleveland is 2-4, and McCoy has thrown 5 touchdowns and just 3 interceptions while averaging a very respectable 8.0 yards per attempt (Joe Flacco is averaging 7.5 ypa in 2010). His favorite target last week was tight end Ben Watson, who caught 7 passes for 92 yards. Watson isn’t the athlete at this stage in his career that the Saints’ Jimmy Graham (2 TDs against the Ravens last week) is, and has nowhere near the supporting cast of Graham, so the Ravens should be able to contain him adequately.
On the other side of the ball, the Ravens need to prove that last week’s ground explosion is something they can at least come close to replicating. They’ll attempt to do so against a Browns defensive unit that will be eager to redeem themselves after giving up 150 yards to the Bengals’ Cedric Benson a week ago, and 112 yards to the Bills’ Fred Jackson before that. Ray Rice, who was named the AFC’s Offensive Player of the Week after his performance against New Orleans, will be squarely in the crosshairs of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Rice has had success against Cleveland recently, racking up 96 and 104 total yards, respectively, in the last two meetings.
Joe Flacco picked on Cleveland cornerback Eric Wright in the first meeting, victimizing him on all three Anquan Boldin touchdowns. Wright was placed on injured reserve this week though, so the Ravens will have to find someone else to go after through the air. One guy who the Ravens are likely to avoid is rookie cornerback Joe Haden. Haden has really picked up his game of late, and has five interceptions. Haden had picks in four straight games back in Weeks 10-13. Ravens’ wide receivers were forgotten men in last week’s gameplan, accounting for just three catches (one each by Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Derrick Mason). Donte’ Stallworth was a healthy scratch against the Saints, but will likely play Sunday with David Reed out due to a concussion.
If “ground and pound” is the ticket to the Ravens’ success from here on out, so be it, but it’s at least nice to know that those veteran wideouts are out there if needed. If the Browns sell out against the run, Flacco should be able to exploit them through the air, Joe Haden or not.
Special teams are always key against Cleveland and return man Joshua Cribbs. In Week 3, Billy Cundiff effectively negated Cribbs by banging touchback after touchback, especially late in the game. With game time temperatures Sunday expected to be in the mid-twenties, along with 10-20 mph winds, touchbacks may be hard to come by (we saw how much shorter Billy’s kicks were than usual last week in the B’More cold). In addition, Tom Zbikowski is out, and Brendan Ayanbadejo and Haruki Nakamura missed practice time this week. All three – along with David Reed – are key special teams contributors. Ayanbadejo and Nakamura are, fortunately, listed as probable.
The Ravens made a tentative statement last week that they are legit title contenders. I say tentative because a loss in Cleveland will toss them right back into the “likely pretender” category. With the Steelers having already won in Week 16 (a 27-3 throttling of the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night), the Ravens need a win to keep their slim hopes of an AFC North title alive. A loss would not only throw them back into the crowded Wild Card mix, it would clinch the division for Pittsburgh. On the other hand, a win clinches a playoff spot of our own, and makes the two AFC North games in Week 17 (Cin @ Bal, Pit @ Cle) critical in the division race.
A great late Christmas present would be for the Ravens to give us a thorough beatdown of the Browns. While I’ll hope for it, I won’t expect it. Another close one seems much more likely.
Ravens 24 Browns 20