Thursday, December 23, 2010

And the winner is . . .

When the Browns and Baltimore Ravens hook up Sunday at CBS. all signs point to a Ravens victory. And why not? The Ravens are 10-4; the Browns are 5-9. The Ravens are peaking as they strive to gain a first-round bye in the playoffs; the Browns are just playing out the season. The Ravens have numerous playmakers; the Browns have maybe one or two. The Ravens love playing for John Harbaugh; the Browns very well could be playing for Eric Mangini's job.

Just about everyone picks the Ravens to sweep the season series against the Browns. But it does seem strange that oddsmakers have made the Ravens just 3 1/2-point favorites. One would think that with so much on the line for the Ravens, not to mention the lousy football the Browns have played lately, the line would be at least seven or maybe even 10 points.

Perhaps the guys who set the odds took note of the first time these teams met in week 3 when the Browns actually held the lead early in the fourth quarter before the Ravens stormed back and won, 24-17. Perhaps they noted that Peyton Hillis shredded the Baltimore run defense for 144 yards and a touchdown.

But that was then and this is now.

Hillis, showing the effects of playing a full season for the first time in his brief professional football career, is beginning to wear down to the point where he longer is piling up those extra yards following initial contact. And his offensive line no longer provides easy holes through which he can blast.

The Ravens, who have uncharacteristically permitted five teams to score at least 23 points this season, were not ready for Hillis the first time around. Ray Lewis, the club's emotional leader, virtually promises there won't be anything Sunday that resembles a repeat.

"(As) our team's leader, it won't happen again," he told earlier this week. "I hope (the Browns) understand that. We're not coming in there to overlook them or anything and we definitely aren't coming in there to give them 100 yards again. So hopefully, they can buckle up their chin straps and do whatever you need to do, but we're definitely coming in to play a very physical football game."

Strong words to be sure, but Lewis is the quintessential back-up-his-boast player in the National Football League. Even at the advanced age (for pro football) of 35, the Ravens' linebacker plays like someone 10 years his junior. He leads the team in tackles with 124 and solo tackles with 90. He is almost always near the football. His sense of where the ball is is uncanny.

Of course, when you have a defensive line anchored by the peerless Haloti Ngata playing in front of you and keeping you clean, there is every reason to believe the future Hall of Famer still has a few more seasons left.

Although they have been torched by such teams as Buffalo and Houston, the Ravens' defense still has surrendered only 93.6 yards a game on the ground this season. Hillis' 144 yards represent 11% of the club's season total.

The pass rush, led by linebacker Terrell Suggs, has sacked opposing quarterbacks 27 times. It will be very interesting to watch Cleveland offensive tackle Joe Thomas battle Suggs throughout the afternoon. Wouldn't be surprised if the Browns go with a two tight-end offense and give Thomas, who has struggled on pass protection this season, some help.

One player the Browns did not see in the first game is free safety Ed Reed, who missed the first six games of the season with an injury. Since returning, the dangerous Reed, who has bedeviled the Browns over the years, has picked off four passes.

As for the offense, quarterback Joe Flacco has 23 TD passes and just eight interceptions. Three of those scoring tosses went to Anquan Boldin in week 3. But Flacco is a passer who can be reached, having been dropped 35 times. The big question is how often the Browns plan to blitz.

Don't expect Boldin to land in the end zone three more times Sunday. That's because Eric Wright, his primary victim in the first game, is on IR and rookie Joe Haden will now be his personal shadow.

Ray Rice, the Ravens' primary weapon on the ground, is just as dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield with 62 receptions. Last week against New Orleans, he totaled 223 yards from scrimmage, a season-high 153 on the ground. He'll be going against a Cleveland defense that has surrendered 380 yards on the ground the last two games.

And don't expect the Baltimore offense to regurgitate the football. It has lost only five fumbles this season.

So there are many good reasons to suggest the Ravens shouldn't have much of a problem against the Browns Sunday. But I'm going against that grain.

Call it a hunch. Call it crazy. Call it anything but rational thinking. But somehow, some way, I think the Browns are going to win this game. Why? Because the Ravens have played three highly emotional games in a row (Steelers, Texans and Saints) and are due for a letdown.

Maybe they'll come into CBS thinking they finally have a breather. The Browns aren't going anywhere but home in a couple of weeks, so they aren't capable of playing with anywhere near the intensity of the Ravens. And the Browns have clearly lacked intensity in their latest losses to Buffalo and Cincinnati.

And that's where the game will be won. The Ravens will arrive underestimating how the Browns will play; underestimating the pride factor playing in front of the home folks; underestimating how much of a difference Colt McCoy, who they have never faced, is to the attack.

And for those reasons, the Browns are going to derail the Ravens and knock them into wild-card status in the playoffs, solely on the strong foot of Phil Dawson. They'll get just close enough to the Baltimore goal line for Dawson to make them pay. Make it:

Browns 15, Ravens 14

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