NFL Preview - Baltimore (5-2) at Cleveland (2-6)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Joe Flacco probably spent his bye week trying to forget Houston Texans star J.J. Watt.
Whether he was successful or not probably won't matter on Sunday, however, since Baltimore will be visiting the lowly Browns, a team the Ravens have beaten nine straight times.
Baltimore couldn't have enjoyed its bye all that much after the franchise's worst loss in five years to Watt and the Houston Texans back on Oct. 21.
Major contributions from Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb helped the Ravens edge Houston in last year's AFC divisional round of the playoffs but things were far different this time without the two defensive stars.
With Lewis (triceps) and Webb (torn ACL) on the shelf, the Texans took advantage of Baltimore's injury-depleted defense as Arian Foster ran for two touchdowns and Matt Schaub threw for two more in Houston's emphatic 43-13 rout of the Ravens.
Harassed for most of the afternoon by Watt, Flacco registered just 147 yards through the air with a touchdown and two interceptions on 21-of-43 passing for Baltimore, which had its four-game winning streak snapped. Ray Rice ran for a mere 42 yards on just nine carries in defeat, the team's worst loss since a 31-point setback at Pittsburgh back in 2007
"You can't achieve anything without going through some adversity," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said this week. "So, the opportunity that is presented to us now is an opportunity to get better -- to become whatever it is we're going to become."
The Browns, meanwhile, have won two of three after starting the season a dismal 0-5. Trent Richardson's 26-yard touchdown run early in the first quarter last Sunday proved to be the difference, as Cleveland held off the San Diego Chargers, 7-6, in sloppy conditions.
Richardson, who has played through a painful rib injury, carried the ball 24 times for 122 yards for the Browns. Fellow rookie Brandon Weeden completed 11- of-27 passes for 129 yards for Cleveland, which snapped a four-game skid against San Diego.
"I see a team that's battling," Browns coach Pat Shurmur said. "I see a team that's with me every step of the way. And they believe in their coaches. And I see a team that's improving. I'm hopeful we're going to continue to make those improvements and win a lot of games."
The Ravens own a commanding 20-7 lead in their all-time series with Cleveland, whose first edition of the franchise moved to Baltimore to become the Ravens prior to the 1996 season before re-entering the NFL as an expansion team in 1999.
Baltimore will be attempting to record a home-and-home sweep of the Browns for the fifth consecutive season. The Browns already fell 23-16 in the Charm City back in Week 4 when Flacco was an efficient 28-of-46 for 356 yards with a touchdown pass and an interception, and Rice rushed 18 times for 49 yards and added eight catches for 47 yards. in the NFL -- but have dropped two of three on the road this season.
"We have all got to be better on the road," Harbaugh said. "That's something that we are not happy with right now."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
This is not your father's Ravens defense, especially with Lewis and Webb both absent. Terrell Suggs, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, made a miracle comeback against Houston, returning from a torn Achilles suffered in April. He notched four tackles and a sack but the Ravens D continued its disappointing season, allowing 420 yards in the blowout and allowing their most points since a 44-20 loss to Indianapolis back in 2007.
"It's not the end of the world," Suggs said of the loss. "But it's not something we're going to take lightly, either."
It's hard to imagine Suggs, who has 13 sacks in 18 career games versus Cleveland, will have the same explosion going forward, but his presence will be a big difference in a weak conference.
"We watched how they played in the last game," Shurmur said. "(Terrell) Suggs being back, I think he had an impact on the game already. I didn't see much difference in last year's version and this year's version."
The Ravens, though, now need to go about things differently since its strength is no longer the defense. Without Lewis and Webb, Baltimore has allowed 400 yards in back-to-back games for the first time since 2009 and it's been especially bad stopping the run, allowing an average of 142.9 yards per game, which ranks 30th in the NFL.
"Ray's being doing it for so long. Emotionally, vocally, he's the leader of that defense," Weeden said. "He kind of gets them lined up. The guy is unbelievable. They've got to be missing that as far as getting guys lined up and the leadership. Webb was a heck of a player. He was playing at a very, very high level. It's an unfortunate deal. You never want to see that happen to a guy. He was really, really good last time we played them. We've got to take advantage of it."
Richardson certainly hasn't been explosive in his rookie season but he has proven to be a workhorse, carrying the ball 127 times for 470 yards and five touchdowns and adding 25 receptions. Moving the chains, controlling time of possession and keeping the ball away from Flacco is Cleveland's best chance.
Without Watt around to torture him, Flacco is likely champing at the bit to get back in the groove, while Rice needs just 99 rush yards to join Jamal Lewis (7,801) as only players in Ravens history to reach 5,000.
The Browns' defense could be tougher this time around, though. Cleveland didn't have star cornerback Joe Haden, who was suspended, the first time it played the Ravens and could get a further boost on Sunday with the possible return of injured defensive tackle Phil Taylor.
"Having Joe (Haden) back will help us," Shurmur said. "If things go well this week we might have Phil (Taylor) back so we've got a couple new pieces. I think the styles of play will be similar. You kind of establish that. Both teams are a little bit different personnel wise and I think that will probably be more of the difference than anything."
All things point toward Baltimore here. Flacco has won nine straight versus Cleveland and 10 consecutive against the AFC North. Meanwhile, with their next win, Flacco and Harbaugh, will record their 50th career win together. The Ravens are also desperate to prove their performance in Houston was an aberration and are a solid 11-5 after the bye.
The Browns, on the other hand, are content to see improvement on a week-to- week basis from their two rookies, Weeden and Richardson. Winning a third straight at home and stopping the long skid to the Ravens would be a signature victory for Shurmur but it's also unlikely.
"I think I see us improving," Shurmur said. "I'm looking forward to playing this game and I think we have made some improvements and I would like to see us go out and show it."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 24, Browns 10
11/01 14:01:09 ET