Thursday, December 22, 2011

Another Ravens romp

It has been just a few weeks since the Browns and Baltimore Ravens last met on a football field, but little has changed.

The two teams, who meet again Saturday in Baltimore, have maintained their respective trajectories as the 2011 winds down. While the Browns nose dive and plumb the depths of the AFC North, the Ravens inch closer to clinching the division title and a bye in the first round of the playoffs.

A victory Saturday would just about nail the division championship for the Ravens, coming off their worst showing of the season, a 34-14 spanking last Sunday night in San Diego. So you can be certain they’ll be in a nasty mood by the time the Browns arrive.

The first time the teams met this season, a Cleveland crowd watched embarrassingly as the Ravens pushed the Browns all over the field on both sides of the ball. Had it not been for a couple of missed field goals by Billy Cundiff and a garbage-time touchdown by the Browns, the Ravens would have won, 30-3.

The Ravens, who have won seven straight in this lopsided series (18-7) and threaten to sweep the season series for the eighth time in 12 seasons, play like a different club against the Browns.

Perhaps it’s the fact they were the Cleveland Browns for the first 50 years of their existence before moving to Baltimore in 1996 and changing their name. Then again, perhaps it’s because they have a much better team.

Whenever these teams collide, the Baltimore coaching staff appears to put a much greater emphasis on winning. The acrimonious relationship between these two franchises and their cities seems to resonate stronger in the Ravens’ front office.

To the Browns, this is just another AFC North game. To the Ravens, this is a lot more than just another AFC North game. It’s a lot more meaningful in part because Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome retired as a Cleveland Brown.

The emotional attachment between these franchises seems to be lost on Mike Holmgren, Tom Heckert Jr. and Pat Shurmur. They don’t get it. Beating the Ravens is just as sweet – sweeter to more than a few – as knocking off the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Maybe they haven’t been around long enough to appreciate and understand just what makes a Browns fan tick. Maybe they need to ramp up their efforts to spare the fans from annual disappointments, especially against division teams.

Since arriving in Cleveland last year, H&H teams have played 10 division games and own just one victory. And the latter number is unlikely to change in the next couple of weeks. Not exactly the formula for building competitive – let alone contending or championship – teams.

Certainly not with so much on the line for the Ravens and Steelers in that time, especially with the Browns in their way. The conclusion of this season could get very ugly for the Browns as they stumble to the finish line in disappointing fashion.

The Ravens, despite the loss of wide receiver Anquan Boldin with a knee injury, can still beat you in so many different ways. A few weeks ago, they plundered the Browns’ defense for 290 yards on the ground, 204 of them by Ray Rice. Quarterback Joe Flacco was a relative bystander as the huge Baltimore offensive line manhandled the Cleveland front seven all afternoon. A repeat performance Saturday is possible, but not likely.

Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron is no dummy and you can bet he’ll scheme to put a lid on Rice, forcing Flacco to throw the ball. That, of course, puts that much more pressure on the secondary.

The Ravens, however, are not shy when it comes to throwing the ball. They are a pass-first team under offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, averaging more than 35 passes a game The only reason they didn’t throw as much in the last game against the Browns was because they didn’t have to.

Even without Boldin, the club’s second-leading receiver this season, Flacco has no problem directing passes toward tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta and rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith. And when they don’t make themselves available, the quarterback has no problem dumping the ball off to Rice, the club’s leading receiver with 71 catches. The little running back has touched the ball 315 times this season for 1,734 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Defensively, the Ravens are that much stronger with the return of middle linebacker and inspirational leader Ray Lewis. After missing four games (all Baltimore victories) with a toe injury, the 36-year-old Lewis returned just in time to see his team’s four-game winning streak shattered in San Diego. Still, he’s the club’s leading tackler.

For whatever reason, Lewis always plays well against the Browns. He seems to be just about everywhere the ball is. Whether it’s making a hit at or behind the line of scrimmage or dropping back into coverage, chances are Lewis will be in the vicinity.

The Baltimore pass rush also hums along at a pace that will see the front seven drop opposing quarterbacks 52 times. To put that in perspective, the Browns’ four-man pass rush is on a 33-sack pace.

The Ravens, who average nearly 24 points and 342 yards a game, owned the ball for 37 minutes and 34 seconds in the first meeting in Cleveland. With the Browns concentrating on shutting down the Ravens’ running game, a repeat of that stat is unlikely.

Unless, that is, the Ravens keep the Cleveland offense off the field with third-down conversions. They have a 42.7% success rate on third down, holding the opposition to just 30.3% The Browns convert third downs at a 39.3% clip, but allow the opposition to convert 40.6% of the time. In their first meeting, the Ravens converted nine of 19 third downs, while the Browns struggled with just three conversions in 14 attempts.

So where does that all lead for Saturday’s little get together in Baltimore? Need you ask? Have you not been paying attention? With Shayne Graham replacing the injured Cundiff and making easy field goals, make it:

Ravens 33, Browns 13

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