Another week, another run-of-the-mill not overly impressive win for the Ravens. After seeing them beat the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints a week ago, many expected a thorough beatdown of Cleveland, as they thought this Ravens team had finally “turned the corner.” However, that’s just not who this team is, and, as I correctly predicted, this game was far from a blowout.
Which isn’t to say that the Browns ever REALLY threatened the Ravens on Sunday. Their only touchdown of the day was not only very questionable (as to whether or not the ball was actually caught), but it was scored on a rinky-dink trick play. Brian Robiskie’s 29-yard touchdown reception that put the Browns up 7-0 in the first quarter was not thrown by quarterback Colt McCoy, but by fellow wideout Mohamed Massaquoi. Cleveland was pulling out all the stops in trying to prevent the Ravens from clinching their third consecutive playoff berth and steal a win. From the aforementioned WR-reverse-pass to Wildcat plays with Joshua Cribbs and an onsides kick attempt to start the second half.
The Ravens never pulled away from Cleveland, which will be sure to have some fans whining this week. However, as they’ve shown us time and again in 2010, that’s just not what they do. While the New England Patriots were decimating the Buffalo Bills 34-3 on their way to locking up the AFC’s #1 seed, the Ravens were producing just another workmanlike win as they clinched a spot of their own. The game plan was much simpler going into Cleveland, on both sides of the ball, then the one we saw a week ago against New Orleans. Less blitzing on defense, far fewer screen passes and complicated running plays on offense, and a lot more vanilla, “we can beat these guys straight up” tactics from Cam Cameron and Greg Mattison.
It wasn’t pretty, but in the end, the result is the same at 20-10 as it would have been at 40-6 – the Ravens finish the season with a respectable 5-3 road record, and still have a chance to win the AFC North title and get a first round playoff bye going into Week 17. Wax ecstatic all you want about their lack of “killer instinct” or whatever other nonsense, but don’t forget to take a moment to celebrate the franchise-first accomplishment that Joe Flacco and John Harbaugh have managed, in making the post-season in three consecutive years.
Speaking of Flacco, while his numbers were very pedestrian (12/19 102 yards), he threw two beautiful touchdown passes, was sacked only once, and also had several nice scrambles in racking up 16 yards and two first downs with his feet on plays where it looked like he was dead in the water. And not to mention he tied Ben Roethlisberger for second all-time for wins in his first three seasons as a starter, and joined Dan Marino and Bernie Kosar as the only QBs ever to make the playoffs in their first three years. Unfortunately, he broke out his old friend the “back foot floater” after keeping it under wraps for much of the season. His lone interception of the day, a lame duck intended for Anquan Boldin that was picked off by Joe Haden, was ill-advised and unfortunate.
It didn’t matter much though, because Flacco’s opposite number, McCoy, was far more eager to throw the ball to the wrong team than Joe was. Led by Ed Reed (two interceptions), the Ravens picked McCoy off three times (Lardarius Webb had the other), and caused a total of four turnovers on the afternoon. It was nice to see Jameel McClain scoop up Massaquoi’s second quarter fumble, as those bounces have been going against the Ravens all season. Despite forcing 20 fumbles, that was just the fifth that the Ravens have managed to recover on defense or special teams. That play set up Flacco’s first touchdown strike, a 15-yard bullet to T.J. Houshmandzadeh that beat double coverage, just three plays later.
For Reed, it was his tenth career game with two or more interceptions (but presumably the first game during which he managed to catch his jacket on fire.)
In addition to ruling the air, the Ravens ruled the ground as well. Ray Rice had 92 yards rushing and Willis McGahee and Le’Ron McClain added on 34 and 19, respectively, in addition to Flacco’s 16. In all, the Ravens ran 38 times for 162 yards, another strong performance that bodes well going into the postseason.
On defense, the Ravens backed up their big talk, suffocating Peyton Hillis for just 35 yards on 12 carries. The Browns had 102 total yards rushing, but many of those were from McCoy (30), and running back Mike Bell (7 carries 27 yards). Their season average will take a slight hit, but anyone watching the game could clearly see that the Ravens stuffed Cleveland time and again, and did not allow them to get anything established on the ground.
The most disturbing statistic to come out of the game for the Ravens’ defense was their inability to get off the field on third down. They allowed Cleveland to convert 7/11 3rd-down opportunities, and that 63% failure rate cannot continue moving forward. That it came against the Browns was even worse, as they had managed only six 3rd down conversions TOTAL over their previous three games.
On offense, third down was a concern as well. Third and very short continues to trouble this team. Rice picked up a 3rd-and-1 in the first quarter, but was stuffed on the same down and distance in the third. Le’Ron McClain was 2/2 on 2nd-and-1 conversions, so hopefully “Pain Train” can be a short-yardage asset moving forward.
On the bright side, the Ravens were penalized only once all day for five yards, and that was an intentional encroachment to give Harbaugh time to decide whether or not to challenge the Massaquoi touchdown pass. Michael Oher didn’t even jump the snap once! Congrats, Big Mike. Keep up the good work.
Special teams had a rough day. Not only did Billy Cundiff not manage a single touchback (his first such game of the season), leaving him three shy of a new NFL record, but long snapper Morgan Cox tore his ACL and will miss the remainder of the season. The Ravens will sign a new LS this week.
Annoyingly, it doesn’t look like the Cincinnati Bengals are ready to pack it in for the offseason. The Bungles knocked off the San Diego Chargers yesterday, knocking them out of the playoff hunt. The Ravens need to beat Cincy at home next week, while hoping that Cleveland’s tricks are more effective against Pittsburgh than they were against us. Otherwise, it’s back on the road (looks like Kansas City or, ugh, Indianapolis) for round one of the playoffs.