With the favor the San Francisco 49ers did for the Ravens in beating Pittsburgh on Monday night, Baltimore is back in control of their own destiny for the AFC North crown and a playoff bye. The Houston Texans lost to the Indianapolis Colts on Thursday night as well, and while not particularly important as long as the Ravens keep winning, it was nice to see another AFC “contender” fall flat on their face against inferior competition as the Ravens have themselves done more times this season than we’d like to remember.
The Ravens, for their part, are trying to make a bit of history on Saturday afternoon, as they hope to complete their first ever undefeated regular season at M&T Bank Stadium. The Browns haven’t beaten Baltimore in Baltimore since the infamous “Phil Dawson Uprights” game back in 2007, falling by an average margin of nearly 19 points in three tries during the Harbaugh/Flacco era. They did give the Ravens a bit of a scare last year though, taking a 17-14 lead early in the fourth quarter before the Ravens reeled off 10 unanswered points for a 24-17 victory.
Unfortunately for the Ravens, the quarterback that nearly beat them here last year, Seneca Wallace, will again be taking the field this time around, as Colt McCoy deals with lingering concussion symptoms imparted on him by James “Headhunter” Harrison over two weeks ago. It doesn’t say much for the Browns’ “franchise” quarterback when Ravens fans would rather face him than the career backup Wallace, who can extend plays much better than McCoy, and had a decent day at M&T last year, going 18/24 for 141 yards and a touchdown.
It was running back Peyton Hillis though, not Wallace, who was the real thorn in the Ravens’ side on that day. Hillis rumbled for 144 yards on 22 carries, and made swiss cheese of the B’More defense. They have held him in check in two tries since then – 35 yards on 12 carries and 45 yards on 12 carries, respectively, during two games in Cleveland. This will be Peyton’s first game back in Baltimore since that big day, so let’s hope it’s not the local crabcakes that are the spinach that turns him into Popeye.
The Ravens’ defense looks to rebound from an absolutely embarrassing performance in San Diego, where they failed to force even a single Chargers’ punt or turnover last Sunday night. They’ll be angry and ready to feed off the energy of the home crowd, so I don’t expect either Hillis or Wallace to have much of any success Saturday. Wallace is no Philip Rivers, and the Browns don’t have anything on their roster resembling the huge downfield threat wide receivers of San Diego. Rookie Greg Little is their leading receiver, and he’s had a season-long case of the dropsies. Lardarius Webb has not been listed on the injury report at all this week, and should be ready to slide back into his starting spot and resume his dominant 2011 campaign. While I don’t think his presence would have made much difference against the Chargers, it certainly couldn’t have hurt to have him playing more than just nickel snaps.
On offense, the Ravens were actually not bad in the first half against the Chargers; the wheels didn’t really start to come off until they were down 24-7. They will look to repeat the success they had against the Browns three weeks ago, when they ran for 290 yards as a team. While Cleveland has improved their run defense a bit in the two games since, holding Pittsburgh and Arizona to 147 and 74 yards, respectively, those teams are ranked 17th and 24th running the ball, and neither has Ray Rice. The Ravens are a not-overly-impressive 16th running the ball, and while we probably shouldn’t expect another 200+ yard performance, Rice should again be able to break the 100-yard mark Saturday.
The big news out of Owings Mills this week has been that Anquan Boldin will miss the team’s final two regular season games. Boldin’s numbers have been poor over the past several games, but his presence alone affects opposing defenses enough that it could be tough sledding without him. Many Ravens fans are excited about the prospect of potentially seeing rookie Tandon Doss lining up in the slot over the next two weeks to replace Boldin, as the team goes with Torrey Smith and Lee Evans on the outside. I would personally be surprised if Doss sees too much action though; the more likely scenario is that the Ravens run more two tight end/two WR sets, and split out either Ed Dickson or Dennis Pitta into the slot from time to time.
His great toe-tapping sideline grab against Indy notwithstanding, we haven’t seen too much chemistry between Evans and Joe Flacco – certainly not nearly what we saw from the two in a couple preseason games. Now would be a great time for Evans to start to really contribute; the dual speedster threat of Evans and Smith on the outside should open things up underneath for whoever it is that lines up in the slot (not to mention Rice out of the backfield). However, teams have to see that Evans is more than just a decoy – and can actually hurt them deep – to pay him any appreciable level of attention. Look for Flacco to take a shot or two to #83 Saturday – the Ravens need to give the Cincinnati Bengals something to think about when they line up for what will likely be a huge contest in Week 17.
That’s not to insinuate that the Ravens are looking past the Browns. They would be incredibly foolish to do so, as the “overlook” virus has infected them too many times already this season. Hell, it’s the reason they find themselves in their current position, needing to win out to take the division and get a playoff bye, instead of having already locked at least one of those things up. The team knows what they have in front of them, and I believe that going undefeated at home is something they all take considerable pride in. Add to that the fact that this will be the Browns’ third consecutive road game, and conditions are ripe for a blowout. While Cleveland has played two straight close games, they have to be running on fumes at this point. Sure, they’d love to play spoiler to the Ravens, but if B’More can get out to an early lead, it should be a fairly relaxing day at The Vault. The Browns will pack it in and be eager to just get out of town healthy.
And it’s still possible that the Ravens could spend Christmas Eve evening as the AFC North champs, if the St. Louis Rams can go to Heinz Field and beat a (likely) Ben-less Steelers te…hahahahahahaha…yeah, I couldn’t even get through that.
Ravens 27 Browns 10