Friday, December 26, 2014

 This one is easy

If there is one thing Joe Flacco knows with a large degree of certainty, it’s that he will be the winning quarterback when his Baltimore Ravens play the Browns. In fact, it’s a virtual lock.

He has faced Cleveland 13 times in his seven-year career and lost just once. That was last season when the Browns snapped an 11-game losing streak against the team that called Cleveland home before moving in 1996. Flacco was at the helm for all 11 victories.

He added No. 12 in week three this season but just barely with Justin Tucker nailing a 32-yard field goal as time ran out for a 23-21 victory. In actuality, the Browns should have won that game.

Billy Cundiff missed one field goal, had another blocked and rookie wide receiver Taylor Gabriel inexplicably fell after catching a deep pass from Brian Hoyer with no defender within 10 yards and did not score what would have been an easy touchdown.

That was also the game in which Johnny Manziel made a cameo appearance at quarterback midway through the second quarter, retreated toward the sideline after one play, but never left the field. A 39-yard Hoyer pass to Manziel on a trick play was negated by an illegal shift penalty.

That’s about as tricky as coach Mike Pettine has been this season, at least on offense. Otherwise, he is trying to guard against the Browns once again sinking as rapidly as the 2014 season is ending.

The four-game losing spiral the Browns are currently in is not being helped by injury issues that have hit the quarterback position particularly hard. Unless he makes a miraculous recovery from shoulder and bicep issues, Hoyer will be a spectator when the two teams meet in the season finale Sunday in Baltimore.

Even though the Browns signed veteran Tyler Thigpen to what amounts to a one-game contract, fans will be disappointed if rookie Connor Shaw does not get the call to start. He has been with the club all season on the practice squad and knows how to handle Kyle Shanahan‘s offense.

How well he handles that offense against the Ravens is another matter. The Baltimore defense, while not as terrific as it was in the Ray Lewis-Ed Reed era, is still pretty good.

They excel at rushing the passer (45 sacks with outside linebackers Elvis Dumervil racking up 17 and Terrell Suggs 11)) and shutting down the run (87 yards a game). The Browns scored three rushing touchdowns in the first game against the Ravens, but were held to just 85 yards on the ground.

But this time, they won’t have to worry about Haloti Ngata in the middle of the Ravens’ defensive line. The National Football League earlier this month suspended Ngata for the remainder of this season (four games) for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

The Ravens didn’t miss him in the first two games, victories over Miami and Jacksonville, limiting them to only 145 yards on the ground. But they did last Sunday when Houston ran for 123 yards in an upset victory.

The Cleveland ground game lately has been rendered dormant with only a 115-yard effort in the loss to Indianapolis the only bright spot. It has produced double-digit results in eight of the 15 games, including three of the last four. They are 2-6 in those eight games, 5-2 in triple-digit ground games.

Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West have found holes difficult to find lately because opposing teams now stack the box with eight and sometimes nine men, daring whoever is at quarterback to throw the ball. In the early part of the season, an effective running game helped set up the pass. That no longer is the case.

Now flip those stats and look at the Browns’ ability to stop the run. In 15 games, they have surrendered triple-digit afternoons to 11 teams, including 453 yards in the last two games against Cincinnati and Carolina. In the four double-digit games, they are 3-1.

All of which brings us to Sunday’s game. The last time these two teams met, the Browns couldn’t stop rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro (90 yards), making his NFL starting debut, and Justin Forsett (63 yards). Both were filling in after the team terminated the contract of Ray Rice two weeks earlier.

Forsett, who supplanted Taliaferro two games later, has compiled 1,147 yards and eight touchdowns and proven a reliable receiver out of the backfield with 42 receptions for 246 yards. Lately, however, he has struggled, gaining only 138 yards and scoring just one touchdown in the last three games.

Flacco has been the Baltimore offense with seven scoring passes and more than 900 yards through the air in the last four games. His chief targets have been long-distance threats Steve Smith (975 yards and six touchdowns) and Torrey Smith (684 yards and 10 touchdowns), and tight end Owen Daniels (481 yards and four scores).

The Browns pretty much shut down the Smiths in the first game until the final drive of the game when Flacco and Steve Smith, who beat Joe Haden on the play, collaborated on a 32-yard connection that moved the ball into field-goal territory with less than a minute left in regulation.

Nonetheless, the Smiths remain dangerous, especially since the Cleveland pass rush poses no threat to Flacco based on how it has played lately. And with Haden questionable for the game, pressure on the Cleveland secondary will be a prominent factor in the outcome of the game.

So let’s add all this up.

The Ravens have won 12 of the last 13 games against the Browns and haven’t lost to them in Baltimore since 2007. They are among the stingiest teams in the league against the run. And the Browns can’t stop the run.

Cleveland also has had trouble running the ball lately and most likely will start a rookie quarterback making his professional debut against a team that averages three sacks a game. And its offensive line hasn’t exactly been lights out recently.

The Browns are in the throes of a four-game losing streak and playing arguably their worst football of the season. There is absolutely nothing positive to grasp unless it’s the anticipation to see what the rookie quarterback can do. That’s how far this club has fallen in the second half of the season. This one’s easy. Make it:

Ravens 28, Browns 6

* Connor Shaw named the Browns' starter. Prediction remains the same.


  1. Would like to hear your opinion about our top two draft picks turning out to be "entitlement babies" unwilling to work and act like a professional. Evidently speaks volumes about the Browns draft process(or lack of one). One first round bust isn't all that rare but two first rounders has to be an NFL record. I know everybody swears up and down they are going to change but I seem to remember something about a leopard and his spots.

  2. The lack of playing time for both young men is mute evidence their apparent swagger and, as you put it, entitlement will not be tolerated. What Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner said recently carries a lot of weight.

    Gilbert and Manziel have come out and said things will change next season. We'll see. In the meantime, all fans can do is hope at least one of them really means what he says.

    When drafting, clubs often try to see what's going on from the neck up. Never mind the football. See what makes a guy tick. Delve into what kind of personality a player has.

    We won't know until next August just how much these two can, or will, change. And don't think for a minute that Farmer and Pettine are buying into what these guys are selling.

    1. Manziel's party and Gordon's suspension, the downward spiral continues. So much for growing up!!!!! Once again the Browns are a laughing stock. Some things never change.

  3. Accountability doesn't seem to be priority No. 1 in Berea.