Friday, September 13, 2013

Is there any doubt?

A quick check of the statistics tells you all you need to know about what will take place Sunday when the new Browns and Ravens (nee old Browns) collide in Baltimore.

Since Art Modell pulled up stakes in Cleveland and pirated (being kind here) the team to Baltimore, these two teams have met 28 times since 1999. The Browns have managed to squeeze out seven victories in 14 seasons, none in the last five.

Or ever since John Harbaugh took over as the Ravens’ head coach.

That’s right. Harbaugh has no idea what it’s like to lose to the Browns as the head man. Neither do quarterback Joe Flacco, running back Ray Rice, cornerback Lardarius Webb, offensive tackle Michael Oher, tight end Ed Dickson and a few others.

And Sunday, you can bet the Ravens will be more than thrilled to open their home season against their favorite patsy after getting shellacked by the Broncos, 49-27, in Denver in the season opener as a national television audience watched.

You have to go all the way back to 2007 to find out when the Browns last knocked off the Ravens. In fact, the Browns won the season series that year during their ill-fated run at playing past December. Otherwise, the Ravens own the Browns.

Since Harbaugh took over the team, the Ravens have been almost invincible at home, winning 33 of 40 games, including a 21-3 record the last three seasons. He came in and immediately changed the culture of the locker room following the reign of Brian Billick.

The defending Super Bowl champions have outscored the Browns, 251-122, in the last half decade and now Harbaugh looks to add a fourth Cleveland coach to his victory belt. He has already bested Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini and Pat Shurmur.

Rob Chudzinski, however, knows how it feels to beat the Ravens. He was the Browns’ offensive coordinator in that 2007 season, orchestrating what is arguably the club’s best offense since the resurrection.

Back then, though, he had quarterback Derek Anderson (career year), wide receiver Braylon Edwards (career year) and running back Jamal Lewis (with some gas still left in the tank) handling the majority of the load.

Obviously, he has far less talent with which to work this season unless Brandon Weeden, Josh Gordon, Trent Richardson and the offensive line can summon up career years. But that falls heavily under the category of wishful thinking.

The most interesting aspect of this one will be how different the Ravens will look – and play – without the talents of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. There is no question they will be a different emotional team now that Lewis has retired.

Fellow linebacker Terrell Suggs is trying to pick up the emotional baton Lewis has left as his legacy as he awaits his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame five years hence. But it’s not the same. Lewis lifted a team with his words. Suggs, easily the most vocal of the linebackers now that Lewis is gone, can’t do that.

Reed, who defected to Houston in free agency, was the dagger in the secondary who seemingly always came up with the big play when the Ravens needed it. The free safety has 61 career interceptions (seven returned for touchdowns), a whopping 11 of them against the Browns.

He also scored twice on fumble returns, once on a punt return and three times with blocked punts, and owns the National Football League record for the two longest interception returns for touchdowns. Some day, he’ll join Lewis in the HOF.

But now that Lewis and Reed are no longer part of the landscape, the emotional mantle now belongs to Flacco, the Super Bowl MVP. And that’s where the Ravens might be their most vulnerable.

Most of the emotion in football lies on the defensive side of the football. The more aggressive nature of the game is on defense. That’s why Lewis, with his bombast, and Reed, with his quiet demeanor and playmaking ability, were vital factors in the Ravens’ success.

It would appear that the Browns’ best chance of defeating the Ravens lies on the offensive side of the ball. The Ravens, with Flacco, Rice & Co., should have no trouble putting points on the board even though they are weaker at wide receivers after trading Anquan Boldin in the offseason and losing Jacoby Jones to injury for the next six weeks.

The Browns will have to outscore the Ravens in this one unless their defense plays a much more aggressive game than they did last week against the Dolphins. In order to do so, the offensive line will have to play much better against a defense looking to redeem itself after last week’s debacle in Denver.

If Joe Thomas, John Greco, Alex Mack, Oneil Cousins and Mitchell Schwartz arrive Sunday without an attitude, it’s going to be another long afternoon for the Cleveland offense. Daryl Smith is no Ray Lewis and Michael Huff is no Ed Reed for the Ravens and the Browns, most notably Brandon Weeden, must take advantage of that.

Schwartz is also in redemption mode after being schooled by Cameron Wake last Sunday. This Sunday, he’ll face another speed rusher in Elvis Dumervil for the most part with Suggs occasionally swinging over to the strong side. Either way, he’s in for a busy afternoon.

It’s easy, at least based on Harbaugh’s pristine record against the Browns, to suggest the Browns will be 0-2 by 4 o’clock Sunday afternoon. But there are too many positive factors favoring that suggestion, not the least of which is Harbaugh is a much better coach than Chudzinski.

Home opener, coming off an embarrassing loss, having 10 days to prepare and better overall talent all add up to only one result. Make it:

Ravens 23, Browns 6

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