NFL Preview - Baltimore (1-1) at Cleveland (1-1)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Baltimore Ravens will wrap up a string of three straight divisional games to open the season on Sunday as they visit the Cleveland Browns and FirstEnergy Stadium.
To say it has been a trying start to the season for the Ravens would be an understatement. However, they have managed to split their first two games despite some big off-the-field distractions, bouncing back from a Week 1 loss to reigning AFC North champion Cincinnati to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 26-6 last Thursday night.
The win over the rival Steelers came just three days after disturbing new video footage was released showing franchise running back Ray Rice punching his now-wife in an Atlantic City casino elevator.
Rice had been already been suspended two games for the incident, but the graphic nature of the video led to his outright release and an indefinite suspension by the NFL.
On the field, Baltimore was able to move on as Joe Flacco threw a pair of touchdown passes to tight end Owen Daniels, Justin Ticker converted four field goal attempts and the Ravens defense forced three turnovers.
"It's a big win for the city. This is always such a huge game against the Steelers," said Flacco. "On a short week after a loss, we had to come out and play well to put that behind us."
Flacco played mistake-free and threw 71 of his 166 yards to Steve Smith, while Bernard Pierce and Justin Forsett combined for 152 rushing yards.
Baltimore's defense held Pittsburgh to just two field goals and picked off a pass while recovering a pair of Steelers fumbles.
"If you're made of the right thing. I think adversity can bring you together, and our guys are made of the right stuff, and I'm proud of them for that," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh.
Baltimore will now play its first road game of the season and is opening its schedule with three straight division games for the first time since 2008. It went 2-1 in that span.
Once a seemingly guaranteed victory, the Ravens had an 11-game winning streak over the Browns halted with a 24-18 loss in Cleveland on Nov. 3. It was the Browns' first win in this series since Nov. 18, 2007 in Baltimore, but they are still just 8-22 all-time in the regular-season series.
Cleveland has not won two in a row over Baltimore since 2007 and will try to change that luck under new head coach Mike Pettine. who began his NFL coaching career with the Ravens from 2002-08. The final four years of that span saw him serve as outside linebackers coach.
Pettine got his first win as Browns head coach last Sunday with a 26-24 stunner over the New Orleans Saints. Brian Hoyer led a late charge as he converted on 4th-and-6 before hitting wide receiver Andrew Hawkins for a big 28-yard completion three plays later to the Saints 11-yard line.
Following a timeout, Billy Cundiff -- a former Raven -- calmly kicked a 29- yard field goal with three seconds remaining to snap Cleveland's eight-game losing streak dating back to last season.
"I feel like I was really locked in to the plays that were being called, and the process of the two-minute drive," Hoyer said.
Hoyer completed 24-of-40 passes for 204 yards and a touchdown. Terrance West made his first career start and carried 19 times for 68 yards and a touchdown, and Johnny Manziel made his NFL debut under center, but his lone pass attempt fell incomplete.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Ravens were in line to have Rice back for this game, but have now moved on completely from the former franchise back.
After Pierce found himself benched during Week 1's loss, Harbaugh had to be happy to see the young back run for 96 yards on 22 carries versus the Steelers.
"Bernard bounced back. That shows you what he's made of, that shows you his metal a little bit, and he finished it off in the fourth quarter pretty good, as did Justin," said Harbaugh.
Forsett ran for 56 yards on eight carries, the bulk of that coming on a 41- yard run, and he leads the NFL with 6.6 yards per attempt having amassed 126 yards on 19 attempts.
Flacco has looked his wait to Daniels and fellow tight end Dennis Pitta a lot through the first two games while also showing quick chemistry with Smith, who comes in one catch shy of 850 for his career.
Despite missing star tight end Jordan Cameron (shoulder) and running back Ben Tate (knee) last week, the Browns were able to get just enough offense to edge the Saints.
Hoyer is now 4-1 as a starter for the Browns and already has a pair of two- minute game-winning drives. Hoyer has thrown for 1,049 yards and seven touchdowns in those five games with three interceptions, and has not been picked off in 132 straight pass attempts.
Under Hoyer, the Browns have not turned the ball over this season and has a plus-3 turnover ratio.
"To me, you can only go by what he's put out there, and he's shown to have that ability," said Pettine of Hoyer's ability to win games late. "If you guys already talked to him I'm sure he told you today there were some plays that he left out there that he would want to do over. He didn't play a perfect game, missed some throws, missed some reads, but made enough plays to win the game. That's what the NFL is all about."
Hoyer will be tested by a Ravens defense that has not allowed a touchdown in four red zone appearances by the opponent and is led by a pair of star linebackers in Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil.
Suggs has 15 sacks and seven forced fumbles in his career versus the Browns, while Dumervil has 10 sacks against them.
Baltimore will also keep an eye on Manziel to see if Cleveland tries to mix in the first-round pick a little more this week.
"We anticipate seeing Manziel, certainly," said Harbaugh. "Brian Hoyer played really well. Brian Hoyer had the go-ahead drive at the end to win the game. He played well throughout the whole game."
Browns linebacker Paul Kruger has a sack in each of the first two games and gets another chance to face his former club. A second-round pick by Baltimore in 2009, Kruger led the Ravens in 2012 with nine sacks in the regular season and another 4 1/2 during the playoffs, getting two of those in the Super Bowl.
"Oh he's awesome man, Paul is playing outta this world right now. I love every second of it I get to watch it firsthand up close in person," noted fellow linebacker Karlos Dansby.
This week could have served as another big distraction for the Ravens had Rice been in line to return, and his actions will still loom over the club for some time, but they showed last week they have moved on.
Flacco has gone 11-1 in his career versus the Browns with 2,498 passing yards, 15 touchdowns and six interceptions, and while Hoyer showed some clutch play last weekend, facing a talented Ravens defense will be a key test.
Cleveland made a big stride last weekend in its rebuild, but the reality of a long-term plan will return this Sunday.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Ravens 24, Browns 17
09/21 10:55:50 ET