Ravens (8-3) @ Browns (4-7)

The Ravens travel to Cleveland this week for the first matchup of the season with the division rival Browns, looking to avoid another road letdown like the ones that befell them in Seattle and Jacksonville (I’m still OK with the Tennessee loss – they’re a decent team, and damn near “good” with Kenny Britt). They’ve had two emotional wins in a row, with a last minute defensive stand against Cincinnati followed by the HarBowl, but they still find themselves in a dogfight for the AFC North title, despite sweeping the Pittsburgh Steelers already. A loss on Sunday could result in the Ravens finding themselves looking up at Pittsburgh on Monday morning, or, best case scenario, in a three way tie with them and Cincinnati at 8-4.

Thus, it is paramount to take care of business in Cleveland against a struggling Browns team.

Fortunately, if  history is any indication, the Ravens will do just that. They are 6-0 against Cleveland in the Harbaugh/Flacco era, including  a 20-10 win last December, a game in which they intercepted Colt McCoy three times, and the only touchdown they allowed was on a trick play.

The Browns enter the game with the NFL’s top passing defense, which is really more due to their 29th ranked run defense than of any particularly spectacular secondary play (cornerback Joe Haden is a beast, however); teams just decide to attack the Browns on the ground, and most have plenty of success doing so. Of course, this is exactly the kind of situation where Cam Cameron seems likely to try to outsmart everyone.

“They think we’re going to run, so let’s pass the ball 40 times.”

Hopefully he learned his lesson after the aforementioned Titans, Jagaurs, and Seahawks games though, all losses in which Ray Rice was inexcusably absent from the offense.

The game time forecast is cold and rainy, another reason for Cam to swallow his pride and grind it out on the ground.

Haden, though he got torched by A.J. Green a few times last week against Cincinnati, is not to be taken lightly. He had six interceptions in his rookie year, and though he has none this season, that is mostly a symptom of opposing teams staying away from him. While Torrey Smith is unlikely to have the same kind of success fellow rookie Green did, he, along with Anquan Boldin and Lee Evans should be able to mix-and-match their formations enough to draw more favorable matchups and keep the chains moving on third-and-long. Joe Flacco is coming off consecutive games with a 100+ quarterback rating and in which he completed at least 63% of his passes, his first back-to-back such performances of 2011. Coincidentally (or not) enough, he also had his two fewest attempts of the year in those Cincy and San Fran games, at 27 and 23, respectively.

The Browns also just lost two starters from their front seven, with linebacker Scott Fujita and defensive end Emmanuel Stephens being placed on IR last week. The weak run defense gets weaker.

The formula is there – feed Ray, take a shot here or there.

And of course, play defense.

The Ravens are coming off one of their best defensive performances of the season, both in terms of points allowed (6 – best so far) and net yards allowed (170 – second only to Jets game). A Browns attack that is near the bottom of the NFL in nearly every category should find the going quite tough Sunday. Honestly, I can’t see how they are going to move the ball and/or score, aside from going to the trickery well again like they did last December.

The only worrisome element is the return of running back Peyton Hillis. Hillis, befell by the “Madden Cover Jinx” this season, has not been nearly the back he was in 2010, when he ran for over 1100 yards and 4.4 yards per carry. One hundred forty-four of those yards came against the Ravens in Week 3, when Hillis gashed the B’More defense for 6.5 yards a pop. In the rematch, though, the former Arkansas Razorback managed only 12 carries for 39 yards. The Ravens will hope to hold Hillis to a performance that much more closely resembles the latter. He carried 19 times for 65 yards against the Bengals’ stout front last week, and the Ravens will need to keep him contained, lest they find themselves in another trailing scenario.

They’ll likely have to do so without the services of Ray Lewis, who is expected to miss his third consecutive game. On the bright side, Dannell Ellerbe should return to the lineup, and is the perfect candidate to meet Hillis in the hole again and again.

The Browns’ leading receiver is rookie Greg Little, with 47 catches for 495 yards. Little is prone to the dropsies (as anybody who watched that Cleveland-Cincinnati game can attest), but could also become a thorn in the Ravens’ side if they are unable to pressure Colt McCoy as they did Alex Smith a week ago. Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi both average over 12 yards per reception for the Browns.

McCoy, for his part, has improved his play in his second season. While he’s thrown a single interception in eight of 11 games, he hasn’t thrown more than one in any game so far. He’s been sacked 26 times, but is also a threat to take off for a first down, as evidenced by his 185 yards on the ground this year. He is similar in a lot of ways to the 49ers’ Smith though (quick feet, weak arm), so it’s not inconceivable for the Ravens to have similar success.

Cribbs can also be dangerous weapon in the return game, as Ravens fans are well aware. Jerry Rosburg’s unit did a good job containing Ted Ginn, Jr. last week, and they’ve kept the clamps on Cribbs over the past couple year, but they have been shaky overall this season, so hopefully Billy Cundiff can boot a few out of the back of the end zone.

The Ravens are halfway to sweeping the division at 3-0, and the odd thing is that it looks like they might have to if they want to be AFC North champs here in 2011. A loss to Cleveland (either here or in Week 16) will damage their home playoff/first round bye dreams, perhaps irreparably. I think they’ll take care of business, but I doubt it will be pretty or easy.

Ravens 20 Browns 13


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