Thursday, December 1, 2011

Get serious

There are good times to play the Baltimore Ravens this season. And then there are not-so-good times to play them.

A little awkwardly put, to be sure, but a quick perusal of the 2011 season for the Ravens reveals one interesting observation. And it obliquely involves the Browns, who play the Ravens Sunday at CBS.

The Ravens rest comfortably atop the National Football League’s AFC North Division with an 8-3 record, which includes victories over division leaders San Francisco and Houston.

Actually, they share first place with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The comfort factor lies in the Ravens sweeping the season series from the Steelers and owning any tiebreaker should the teams tie for the division championship or any other playoff position.

So how did the Ravens lose three games this season? That’s where the Browns game comes into focus.

Six of Baltimore's eight victories have come against teams that own a winning record. Only St. Louis and Arizona sport losing seasons among the victims. Now let's check the other side of the ledger.

Two of those three losses were against teams with losing records: Jacksonville and Seattle, each on the road. And each inexplicable loss came after a significant victory; Jacksonville the week after the Ravens defeated Houston, and Seattle after they won the previous week in Pittsburgh.

There’s something about playing on the road against a bad team following a big victory that seems to bother the big, bad Ravens to the point where they play just poorly enough to lose.

And we all know who the Ravens played and beat their last time out. How can you not remember the famous Harbaugh brothers battle on Thursday night football a week ago when big brother John’s Ravens smothered younger brother Jim’s 49ers?

Well, smothered might be a little harsh for a 16-6 result, but the Ravens sacked 49ers quarterback Alex Smith nine times, hit him on 12 other occasions and were firmly in control of the game despite the absence of middle linebacker Ray Lewis.

So now, the scenario is set for the Ravens’ visit to Cleveland: Big victory in their last game, and heading into the lair (using that term loosely) of one of the really bad teams in the NFL. The only difference is the Ravens have had 10 days to prepare for this one.

Even so, there’s a good chance Lewis might miss his third straight game with what has been diagnosed as turf toe. Now that might not seem like much of an injury, but turf toes have been known to end careers. That’s what forced Jack Lambert to retire from the Steelers.

Brendon Ayanbadejo, a nine-year veteran, has stepped in and performed well in Lewis’ absence in victories over Cincinnati and San Francisco even though he doesn’t possess Lewis’ extreme – and often over-the-top – passion.

There’s a very good chance the Browns don’t know of Baltimore’s predilection to lose games no one expects them to lose. And that could be a blessing even though they haven’t knocked off a team with a winning record yet this season.

Believe it or not, the Browns have not played that badly at home this season. They are one bad snap away (remember the loss to St. Louis?) from a 4-2 record at the so-called Factory of Sadness. They’ve saved their really bad football (except for the Tennessee loss) for the road.

Oddsmakers have made the Ravens 6½-point favorites even though the game is in Cleveland. Perhaps they are unaware of just how bad Baltimore is following a big victory. Then again, maybe they know something we don’t know.

Maybe they figure Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco will strafe the Cleveland secondary like he has the last three seasons, during which Baltimore has won six straight games and outscored the Browns, 151-67.

Flacco, who has never lost to the Browns, completes 67.5% of his passes against them with eight touchdowns and three interceptions. And he seems to have bonded nicely with rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith, who has become a major threat for the deep pass. He has caught 31 passes, but averages 19.8 yards a catch and has five TDs.

Then again, maybe the oddsmakers figure Ray Rice and Ricky Williams will shred one of the worst run defenses in the NFL. Together, they’ve run for nearly 1,000 yards. Rice, also the Ravens’ leading receiver, has scored 10 TDs this season.

No doubt the oddsmakers were impressed that the Ravens have given up the second-fewest points in the league with 183, just four more than the Texans’ 179.

It’s interesting to note the club does not appear to miss Lewis that much, given their big wins over Cincinnati and San Francisco. That’s probably because they have the most active and aggressive front seven in the entire NFL.

Their hybrid 3-4 becomes a 4-3 depending on where Terrell Suggs lines up. At once, he is a linebacker and defensive lineman. When he crashes (he’s got nine sacks), he becomes one of the most feared pass rushers in the league. When he drops into coverage, he is nearly as effective with two of the team’s 12 interceptions.

The line consists of three defensive tackles. Haloti Ngata, Cory Redding and Terrence Cody are strong, quick and nasty. The nastiness continues at linebacker with Jameel McClain and Jarret Johnson. And whenever defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano wants to ratchet up his pass rush, he brings in ends Pernell McPhee and Paul Kruger. Suggs, Ngata, McPhee, Redding and Kruger have combined for 26 of the club’s 38 sacks.

If there’s a weakness on defense, it lies in the secondary with third-year cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams. But that’s also where Ed Reed lives. The veteran free safety is having a down season with just three picks, but that’s because he hasn’t played the Browns yet. In 17 games against Cleveland, Reed has racked up 10 of his 57 career interceptions, returning three for touchdowns.

All in all, there seems to be only one possible outcome in this one. There is no question the Ravens are the better team. It’s not even close. But then there’s that nagging fact about Baltimore losing focus for 60 minutes against a lesser opponent on the road following a big victory.

Will that happen to them for the third time this season? Can the Browns shock the NFL again and do what Jacksonville and Seattle, two teams the Browns have beaten, did to the Ravens?

Of course not. Make it:

Ravens 34, Browns 7

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