NFL Preview - Baltimore (4-4) at Cleveland (1-7)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Expected to contend for the AFC North title, the Baltimore Ravens have lost four of their last five games to make the division a surprising three-horse race.
If Baltimore doesn't want to be the team that winds up third in that race -- a spot that likely won't come with a playoff appearance -- then it needs to take care of business on Monday night against a Cleveland Browns team that has won just once in its last 14 games.
This Monday night's meeting at Cleveland Browns Stadium could very well put the Ravens on the road in which they will finish their season. At 4-4, they trail co-leaders Pittsburgh and Cincinnati by two games in the division, and after this meeting with the hapless 1-7 Browns, are staring at home games against the currently undefeated Indianapolis Colts and rival Steelers.
So, it goes without saying that Baltimore must knock off a Cleveland team that has been running around in circles since the season began.
The Ravens didn't do themselves any favors last weekend. Facing the Bengals, they allowed their opposition to score on its first three possessions, yielding a pair of touchdowns and a field goal to Cincinnati in what ended up being a 17-7 loss.
While Baltimore' first-half offensive woes continued, the defense allowed Cincinnati running back Cedric Benson to rush for 117 yards, making him the first back to gain 100 yards or more twice in the same season against the Ravens since Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis in 1996.
Quarterback Joe Flacco struggled to just 195 passing yards and was intercepted twice while failing to throw a touchdown pass in a game for the first time this season. Kicker Steve Hauschka also came under fire this week after stifling a Baltimore rally with a missed 38-yard field goal try with 6:17 left in the game.
There were reports that the Ravens worked out two kickers on Tuesday, former Jet Mike Nugent and Billy Cundiff, who recently kicked for the Browns until being released on November 3. However, Hauschka remains the man in Baltimore at the moment.
Hauschka and Baltimore will now look to rebound against a Browns club the team throttled by a 34-3 score back in Week 3. After winning the starting job in training camp, that blowout was the last game quarterback Brady Quinn would start for the Browns for the foreseeable future.
Quinn completed 6-of-8 passes, but for just 34 yards with an interception. Derek Anderson took over in that game and was intercepted three times, but remained the starter nonetheless for Cleveland's next five games.
Anderson, though, produced just one victory, a 6-3 triumph over Buffalo in Week 5 in which he completed only 2-of-17 pass attempts. Anderson has just a 36.2 passer rating on the season and the Browns are going back to Quinn under center for this game.
Quinn has had extra time to prepare, since the Browns are coming off their bye week. Cleveland lost its third straight game November 1 in Chicago, a 30-6 defeat in which the Bears turned five Cleveland turnovers into 20 points and Quinn eventually replaced an ineffective Anderson.
Cleveland will be looking to snap an eight-game home losing streak, as it hasn't won as the host since its last home Monday night home game on October 13, 2008 versus the Giants.
The Browns went 2-1 overall on Monday nights last season.
Baltimore holds a 14-7 lead in its all-time series with Cleveland, and has won three straight over the Browns including a 34-3 rout at M&T Bank Stadium in Week 3. The Ravens engineered a home-and-home sweep of the Browns last year, coming up a 28-10 home winner in Week 3, and taking a 37-27 decision in the return matchup in Cleveland during Week 9. The Browns swept the 2007 home-and- home, including a 27-13 home win.
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh is 3-0 against the Browns as head coach. Mangini is 0-2 against the Ravens as a head coach, including a loss during his tenure with the Jets (2006-08), and is 0-1 against Harbaugh head-to-head.
Mangini served as an assistant coach with the Ravens during the 1996 season, their first in Baltimore.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
If the Browns want to shut downs the Ravens offense, they will need to zero in on running back Ray Rice (573 rushing yards, 46 receptions, 6 total TD). The 5-foot-8 Rutgers product accounted for Baltimore's lone touchdown last weekend, a two-yard fourth-quarter run. Rice was limited to just 48 yards on 12 carries, but he did notch a game-high eight catches for 87 yards. Rice is also a big piece of Baltimore's 10th-ranked pass attack and has accounted for 732 total yards in his last five games, with the total split nearly identical between run and pass yardage. Flacco (2044 passing yards, 12 TD, 7 INT) looks to Rice's way a lot, but he also needs to keep wide receivers Derrick Mason (33 receptions, 4 TD) and Mark Clayton (24 receptions, 2 TD) and tight end Todd Heap (30 receptions, 2 TD) involved. Mason and Heap each had three catches versus the Bengals, with Clayton held to just one. Flacco was sacked a season-high four times a week ago.
Rice and company should find plenty of space on Monday, as the Browns rank dead-last in the NFL in yards allowed at 409.1 per game. That includes a poor effort against the run, a category Cleveland stands 31st overall (171.5 ypg). Already without linebacker D'Qwell Jackson for the rest of the season because of a shoulder ailment, the Browns placed its other starter on the inside, Eric Barton, on injured reserve Tuesday due to a unspecified injury reported to be a neck issue. It marks the second time this year that Cleveland has placed a leading tackler on IR. Barton's absence should increase playing time for rookie Kaluka Maiava and Blake Costanzo. Outside linebacker Jason Trusnik (20 tackles, 2 sacks) led Cleveland with eight tackles versus the Bears two weeks ago and had one of four Cleveland sacks. Fellow linebacker Kamerion Wimbley (39 tackles, 5 sacks) and end Corey Williams (13 tackles, 2 sacks) were also credited with full sacks, while safety Brodney Pool (38 tackles, 3 INT) notched just Cleveland's fourth interception of the season.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
Quinn returns from banishment and will attempt to revive an offense that ranks last through the air (121.5 ypg), 31st overall (221.1 ypg) and is tied for 30th in scoring at just 9.8 points per game. Cleveland is averaging 99.6 rushing yards per game, 22nd in the league, with the majority of the work coming from the frustrated Jamal Lewis (349 rushing yards). Lewis, a former Raven, has said he plans to retire at season's end, meaning more work could be coming for backup Jerome Harrison (254 rushing yards). Lewis had 69 yards on 16 carries versus the Bears, while Harrison added 19 on five attempts. Wide receiver Joshua Cribbs (11 receptions) has also gotten some work out of the backfield in the Wildcat formation, running six times for 28 yards versus Chicago. Rookie Mohamed Massaquoi (19 receptions) was Cleveland's leading receiver versus the Bears, but had just two catches for 28 yards. Cribbs added a 23-yard reception, while tight end Steve Heiden (9 receptions, 1 TD) hauled in a 10-yard pass.
The Ravens' highly-reputable defense has struggled as of late and is currently the 12th ranked unit in the NFL (320.6 ypg). Baltimore is allowing an uncharacteristic 94.9 rushing yards per game in addition to 225.8 yards per week through the air. Getting to Quinn could be key for the defense this Monday, as the Ravens notched just one sack versus the Bengals -- by linebacker Terrell Suggs (41 tackles, 3.5 sacks) -- without an interception, though safety Ed Reed (34 tackles, 2 INT) did force and recover a fumble. Reed's eight career interceptions versus the Browns are the most against any one club in his career, while Suggs has posted 11 sacks lifetime versus Cleveland. Defensive end Dwan Edwards (17 tackles, 1 sack) and linebacker Ray Lewis (68 tackles, 1 sack) had eight tackles each last week for a defensive unit that was without defensive lineman Haloti Ngata (18 tackles). He missed the game with an ankle injury, with Justin Bannan starting in his place.
Although Baltimore has struggled as of late, a matchup with the Browns should right some fantasy ships. Rice is a must-start, as he is getting touches on all fronts and has seemed to put Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain way back in the rearview. Expect Rice to have a huge game. Flacco should also find the end zone again versus a struggling Browns defense, meaning good things for Mason and Heap. Having picked off four passes while holding the Browns to just 186 yards in the last meeting, the Ravens defense is a top start. Even Hauschka is a good play, as he will get plenty of opportunities.
Not many Browns have been worth fantasy plays this season, and this week is no different. Cribbs is a deep sleeper if your league awards points for return yards, but Quinn and company should be avoided at all costs. That even goes for Lewis, even though he gets a bulk of the carries, as he likely won't come close to matching Benson's numbers from a week ago. Just say no to the Cleveland defense.
With the Ravens in danger of falling dangerously far back in the playoff race, let alone the division standings, there isn't a more perfect time to be facing the Browns. Cleveland appears to have no idea what direction it wants to take this year, as evidenced by its QB carousel, and is likely trying to just get through the season before some wholesale changes are made. Baltimore needs this game 100 times more than Cleveland, and that will show in a big way.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 27, Browns 9
11/13 10:48:27 ET