Sunday, November 3, 2013

A glorious farewell to the streak

The look on Ray Rice’s face was priceless.

He looked confused as if trying to figure out where to go and what to do next. And then it hit him.

The game was over and a feeling unlike any the Baltimore Ravens running back had ever experienced washed over him. All he could do is get up at the Browns’ 48-yard line after an 18-yard gain with a Joe Flacco pass Sunday and head to the locker room.

The game was over. There would be no more plays. He then realized what it's like to lose to the Cleveland Browns.

Time had finally run out on the Ravens’ mastery over the Browns for the past six years. The yoke that had hung around the Browns’ necks was finally shed. For the first time since Nov. 18, 2007, an 11-game stretch, they had more points on the scoreboard than the Ravens at the end of a game.

The 24-18 victory not only smashed what some believed was a jinx the former Browns team had over the current team, it was accomplished in a manner that very well could portend a turnaround in the series.

Even though they permitted the Ravens to get back into the game when they didn’t deserve to be as close as three points early in the final quarter, this one was going to be won by the Browns one way or another.

They played the game as if to say, “This (11-game) losing streak ends right here, right now.”

They brought attitude on both sides of the ball to the ballpark. They performed as though the very thought of losing never entered their minds. Even when the Ravens closed to within 21-18, one got the feeling this one was not going to slip away.

It was a game where Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron, the Browns’ most dangerous receivers, were non-factors. It was a game where Greg Little and Davone Bess, the club’s two least-feared receivers, provided most of the pass receiving excitement.

Little made seven tough catches for 122 equally tough yards. And Bess, excoriated for his performance last Sunday in Kansas City, exonerated himself with a pair of touchdown receptions and perhaps the most important catch of the game.

The defense, with the notable exception of the final minute of the first half, played exquisite football. The Baltimore running game, which normally eviscerates the Browns’ run defense in Cleveland, was non-existent.

Rice, who has tortured the Browns in Cleveland for the last five years, might as well have not showed up. He carried the ball 11 times and produced 18 yards. Sounds like the kind of stats Cleveland runners have compiled against the Ravens’ defense in the last five seasons.

The leading Baltimore rusher was Flacco, who picked up 25 yards in three scrambles. And when he dropped back to pass, he saw a Ray Horton defense that seemed to befuddle him for a major portion of the game.

If it hadn’t been for the fact Horton opted to play a prevent defense in the final minute of the first half, the Browns most likely would have taken a 14-3 lead to the dressing room instead a 14-10 lead.

Cleveland had built the lead on a pair of first-half touchdown passes by Jason Campbell to Bess. Yes, the same Bess who contributed mightily to the Browns’ loss last Sunday in Kansas City.

Instead of putting pressure on Flacco, Horton chose to play a two-deep zone on a third-and-8 from the Ravens’ 35-yard line. Flacco took advantage and hit Torrey Smith on a 46-yard pass when free safety Tashaun Gipson failed to pick him up after cornerback Joe Haden released him with about 20 seconds left in the half.

Two plays later, the Ravens regained some momentum when Flacco connected on the first of his two TD passes to Marlon Brown.

But the defense provided the emotional impetus that enabled the Browns to recover from what could have been a devastating blow. In the past, it most likely would have. But these Browns are different.

The Ravens controlled the ball for the first six minutes and 17 seconds of the second half, running off 13 plays and seemingly wearing down the Cleveland defense in the process. The Browns needed a big play.

In the past, the big play was only a dream. Not with this defense, though. Strong safety T. J. Ward, coming on one of Horton’s sophisticated blitzes, got up close and very personal with Flacco and dropped him for an eight-yard loss on a third-and-15 at the Cleveland 37.

It sucked away some of the momentum the Ravens had built up and breathed new life into the Browns’ offense. With more than a little help from Baltimore’s special teams, Cleveland built the lead back up to 11 on the next possession thanks to Tandon Doss.

Doss replicated Bess’ fumbled punt against Kansas City last Sunday and special teamer Eric Martin recovered the muffed punt at the Baltimore 11. Three plays later, Campbell found tight end Gary Barnidge all alone in the end zone for his third TD pass of the evening.

A 36-yard punt return by Doss two series later produced a short field for Flacco, who drove his team 32 yards in just five plays and converted a two-point conversion, making it a three-point game.

Usually at times like that, the old Browns tended to fold their tent, bow to the mastery of the Ravens and slink back into the locker room wondering just what the hell went wrong.

But again, these Browns seem to take a different approach to adversity. They tend to reach back for whatever they reach back for and refuse to give up.

The Ravens, who semi-abandoned the running game in the second half, tested the Browns’ resolve with relentless determination down the stretch. But the Browns were just as determined to end the Ravens’ streak, end their own three-game losing skid and stretch the Ravens’ losing ways to three games.

When the Browns took over at their 29 with 6:44 left on the clock, all they needed was a drive that bled a lot of time off the clock. They needed someone to make a big play.

Campbell found that player in Bess, of all people. Held to just his two touchdown catches, the little wide receiver made arguably the most important catch of the day and made coach Rob Chudzinski’s gamble look good.

It was as little three-yard grab on a fourth-and-1 at the Baltimore 43. Campbell was flushed out of the pocket and looked desperately for anyone to help him. An incomplete pass would have given the Ravens possession of the ball at their 43 with slightly more than three minutes left.

Bess saw his quarterback in trouble and did what any good receiver would do when he sees his quarterback in trouble. He headed back toward Campbell, who drilled the ball toward Bess. And this time, he held on for a vital first down.

The catch forced the Ravens to exhaust all their timeouts. Aided by a pair of Campbell-Chris Ogbonnaya connections that netted 31 yards, the Browns ran off all but 14 seconds as the Ravens could only watch as Billy Cundiff stretched the lead to six points with a 22-yard field goal.

If nothing else, this victory proved the Browns have turned an emotional corner. They no longer wonder whether they can win an important game. After knocking off the Ravens, they know they can win an important game.

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