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NFL Preview - Baltimore (8-3) at Cleveland (4-7)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Baltimore Ravens have had trouble this season following up big victories when they face a team below .500. They have a chance to buck that trend this Sunday with a matchup with the last-place Cleveland Browns.
The Ravens look to win a sixth straight divisional game and seventh in a row over the Browns this weekend at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
With an 8-3 record, Baltimore is not only tied with Pittsburgh for first place in the AFC North, but for the best record in the conference along with New England and Houston. The Ravens could be in an even better position, but all three of its losses this year have come against teams that were under .500 at the time.
Baltimore followed up a big Week 1 win over Pittsburgh with a loss in Tennessee, knocked off first-place Houston on Oct. 16 one week before an ugly defeat in Jacksonville and then followed up a road win over the Steelers with a setback in Seattle.
The Ravens hope those woes, which seem to creep up on the road, don't follow them to Cleveland after they knocked off San Francisco by a 16-6 score in the "Harbaugh Bowl" on Thanksgiving. Baltimore used a club record-tying nine sacks and a touchdown pass from Joe Flacco to tight end Dennis Pitta to give head coach John Harbaugh a victory over the Niners and their sideline general, little brother Jim Harbaugh.
"It's just a big win for us," said John Harbaugh afterward. "It's an opportunity going forward. It positions us really well. Now we have to conquer a game in Cleveland, one that's been plaguing us all year."'
Harbaugh was referring to the Ravens' issues against losing teams following big wins. Baltimore needs to shake the trend quickly, as its next four games are all against teams under .500, a stretch that is book-marked with games versus the Browns.
Baltimore's head coach shook off the notion that his team just wasn't ready for those games, saying that the Ravens just didn't play well. He also stressed the challenge of this game given that the Browns are in the same division and are coming off a solid showing.
"We've got to turn over every stone," Harbaugh said. "We certainly acknowledge that those three losses, coming off of big wins, against teams with sub-.500 records, were not good performances. They are team losses the way we look at it -- coaches, players, all of us."
The Browns certainly seem capable of pulling off the upset considering their performance last weekend in a 23-20 loss to Cincinnati. Cleveland, though, failed to hold leads of 17-7 and 20-10 as the Bengals' Mike Nugent hit a 26- yard game-winning field with 38 ticks left.
That came after Cleveland's Phil Dawson missed a 55-yard attempt at the other end following a bad snap. He had already hit a season-long 54-yarder earlier in the game, but long snapper Ryan Pontbriand's toss back to the holder was low.
Pontbriand fell on the sword Tuesday, getting released.
"We didn't finish it off," said Browns head coach Pat Shurmur. "The Bengals did a good job of coming back on us. Just like if we had won the game it'd be a team victory, we lost the game and it was a team loss."
Cleveland has lost four of its last five games and does not have an easy road to the end of its season. Four of its final five tests are against AFC North co-leaders Baltimore and Pittsburgh, including a meeting at the Ravens on Dec. 24.
The Ravens, meanwhile, have won two in a row despite playing both games without linebacker Ray Lewis, whom Harbaugh said has a chance of returning for this game.
Baltimore, which has won seven of its last eight versus AFC North opponents, can reach 9-3 for the second time in team history with a victory over Cleveland, joining the 2006 club.
The Ravens own a commanding 17-7 lead in their all-time series with the Browns, 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, and have won each of the last six bouts between the rivals. Baltimore recorded its third straight home-and-home sweep of the Browns by following up a 24-17 home victory during Week 3 of the 2010 season with a 20-10 triumph in Cleveland last December, and also left Ohio with wins in both 2008 (37-27) and 2009 (16-0). The Browns last bested the Ravens via a 33-30 overtime decision at M&T Bank Stadium on Nov. 18, 2007 and topped Baltimore at home by a 27-13 count that same year as well.
Harbaugh is 6-0 lifetime against the Browns as a head coach, while Shurmur will be facing both the Ravens and Harbaugh in his current position. The two sideline bosses previously worked together on the staff of the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2007, with Shurmur then the team's quarterback coach and Harbaugh the special teams coordinator and later in charge of defensive backs.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
Thanks to a solid defensive effort, the Ravens were able to defeat the 49ers despite just 253 total yards by the offense. Baltimore, which ranks 17th overall in total offense but seventh in points per game with 24.7, did not turn the ball over to lend its defense a hand, however. Flacco (2737 passing yards, 13 TD, 8 INT) only threw for 161 yards and was not sacked, while hitting Pitta (27 receptions) for his first touchdown reception. The Browns will need to keep an eye on No. 1 wide receiver Anquan Boldin (48 receptions, 3 TD), who led the Ravens with four receptions and 63 yards last week. Boldin hauled in eight passes for 142 yards and three touchdowns in a meeting with Cleveland last year and needs only two more catches for 700 in his career. Emerging rookie wideout Torrey Smith (31 receptions, 5 TD) added two catches versus San Francisco. Running back Ray Rice (722 rushing yards, 54 receptions, 10 total TD) was held to just 59 yards rushing on 21 carries by the 49ers as the Ravens totaled just 92 yards on the ground overall. Rice can also make plays in the passing game, and he caught three balls last week. The fourth-year pro rushed for 154 yards in a Nov. 2, 2008 meeting with the Browns, while Flacco is 6-0 against Cleveland in his career with 1,238 passing yards, eight touchdown throws and a 101.9 passer rating.
The Browns and their top-ranked pass defense will be without linebacker Scott Fujita (51 tackles, 1 INT), who is now on injured reserve after breaking his hand against the Bengals. He had started 10 of Cleveland's first 11 games. Cleveland's pass rush generated a pair of sacks last weekend, including one from rookie lineman Jabaal Sheard (35 tackles, 4.5 sacks). He also had four tackles and a forced fumble, while backup linebacker Titus Brown also got to the quarterback. Middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson (100 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT) led the Browns with nine tackles, and both safety Mike Adams (35 tackles, 2 INT) and tackle Ahtyba Rubin (53 tackles, 3 sacks) had six. Standout corner Joe Haden (44 tackles, 1 sack) figures to have the job of shutting down Boldin, with teammate Sheldon Brown (32 tackles, 1 INT) matching up on the secondary receivers. Rookie tackle Phil Taylor (42 tackles, 4 sacks) and safety T.J. Ward (39 tackles, 1 sack), who hopes to return from a foot injury this week, are also key for a Cleveland unit that is allowing 19.6 points per game, ninth-best in the league.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
Cleveland has had trouble moving the ball this season, ranking 28th in total offense (295.9 ypg), though its struggling ground game has racked up 282 yards in the last two weeks. That includes 134 versus the Bengals, led by Peyton Hillis' 65 on 19 carries. Hillis (276 rushing yards, 2 TD) led the team in carries after missing the previous five games with a hamstring issue. Quarterback Colt McCoy (2332 passing yards, 13 TD, 8 INT) added 38 rushing yards while throwing for 151 yards on 16-of-34 passing. He was sacked twice and picked off once in the game, but did complete touchdown passes to wide receivers Jordan Norwood (15 receptions) and rookie Greg Little (47 receptions). Both hauled in the first NFL touchdown passes of their career. Little leads all rookies in receptions this season, adding five to that total on Sunday, while Norwood led the Browns with 69 yards on four catches and scored Cleveland's initial first-quarter touchdown of the season. Tight end Benjamin Watson (32 receptions, 2 TD) finished with two catches in the loss and wideout Mohamed Massaquoi (20 receptions, 2 TD) failed to make a catch on three targets. Playmaker Joshua Cribbs (29 receptions) leads the Browns with four touchdowns.
The Ravens defense came up with a dominating effort on Thanksgiving, matching the club record of nine sacks in a game first set in 1997 and matched in 2006. Rush specialist Terrell Suggs (49 tackles, 9 sacks, 2 INT) led the way with three sacks and forced a fumble, while Baltimore's front three also got in the act. Defensive end Cory Redding (27 tackles, 3.5 sacks) notched 2 1/2 sacks, while tackle Haloti Ngata (46 tackles, 5 sacks) got to the quarterback twice. Redding also finished with five tackles, while safety Bernard Pollard (53 tackles, 2 sacks), linebacker Jameel McClain (56 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) led the Ravens with eight each. Baltimore, which has an NFL-high 38 sacks on the year, would love to see Lewis (68 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) return for this game given his history with the Browns. His seven sacks against them are the most he has against any one team, and he has also picked off four passes versus Cleveland. Safety Ed Reed (39 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) has 10 interceptions in his career when facing Cleveland, returning three of them for scores. Lardarius Webb (55 tackles, 1 sack, 4 INT) and Cary Williams (54 tackles) start at corner for the Ravens.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Ravens need to finish strong to clinch the division and home-field advantage, something the club has done historically well. Since 2008, they are 10-4 in December/January and are averaging 152.6 yards per game on the ground over that span. They are also allowing an NFL-low 82.2 rushing yards per game since 2008, and both of those phases should trouble the Browns.
Also troubling for Cleveland is seeing Suggs on the field. While Lewis and Reed have given the franchise fits, it is Suggs who has been the biggest handful. His 12 sacks versus Cleveland are the most he has against any one club and he has three multi-sack games against the franchise. Shurmur will have to be very aware of where Suggs is on the field at all times.
If the Browns can keep it close, Dawson may give them the advantage. The veteran kicker has a strong leg and can shorten the field for Cleveland's offense in terms of getting points, and he has already hit on seven field goals from 50 yards or more this year. That is tied for third-most all-time in a single season, and he has converted on 83.6 percent of his field goal kicks since Cleveland Browns Stadium opened in 1999. Opponents are connecting at a 78.4 percent rate during that span.
The Ravens and Browns are both certainly aware of Baltimore's issues following big wins this season, and that should help to get overmatched Cleveland up for this game. Trends are trends for a reason, but the Ravens do have some factors working in their favor in addition to just being the better team. Having not played since Thanksgiving, they come in very rested and have a weapon in Rice who can expose Cleveland's run defense. A slow start would surely cause him unrest on the Ravens' sideline, but this is one matchup the team won't give away.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 17, Browns 9
12/01 18:01:09 ET