Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Sweep time for Ravens?

It’s only halfway through the National Football League season and the AFC North, once one of the strongest divisions (with one notable exception) in the league, is now arguably the weakest in the eight-division league.

Tied at the top with 4-4 records are the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, teams thought by pre-season prognosticators to be among the strongest in the league. The Cincinnati Bengals, another pre-season favorite, are a half game behind at 3-4-1.

That, of course, does not mean one, perhaps two, of them will bust out and live up to expectations. But the fact remains the quality of play in the division hasn’t been this low for many seasons (with one notable exception).

That notable exception, a.k.a. the Cleveland Browns, has set franchise records for futility this season that might never be broken. It has become impossible on a yearly basis for this team to drag down its division any more than it has this season.

The interminable beat of the schedule this season drones on Thursday night when the winless Browns roll into Baltimore in an effort to salvage a split in the season series with the Ravens, who have registered 11 sweeps of Cleveland in 17 seasons.

After having won the first meeting, 25-20, in comeback fashion back in Cleveland in the second game of the season, one would think the Ravens would be super confident for this one. Hardly the case.

These aren’t your normal intimidating Ravens, a perennial contender for the postseason that beats you on both sides of the football. No, not this season. Or last season, for that matter. This team is different.

Something is missing. The Ravens struggle to win. Last season, they finished 5-11 and a downward trend seemed to kick in. They won the first three games this season by a total of 13 points before losing the next four. 

John Harbaugh-coached teams rarely are mired in prolonged losing streaks. That domain is comfortably owned by the Browns, who put a nine-gamer this season – and 12 straight overall – on the line Thursday night. One more loss sets a club record for most losses to begin a season and extends the mark for the other.

The Ravens climbed into the division tie at the top by knocking off Pittsburgh last Sunday with a stingy defense – clearly the hallmark of this year’s team – that successfully fought off a furious fourth-quarter comeback by the Steelers.

The Ravens are not going to beat anyone with their offense. In fact, they were fortunate to defeat the Browns in week two, giving the Browns hope this might be the week the losing streak ends.

In that first meeting, the Browns were driving for what would have been the go-ahead touchdown in the final minute of regulation when a strange call by an official negated a big play and slammed the door on any possibility of winning.

Terrelle Pryor caught a 20-yard pass from Josh McCown at the Baltimore 10 with 20 seconds left and the Browns trailing by five. The Cleveland wide receiver innocently tossed the ball to the nearest official, but a trailing official threw a flag in addition to one that had been thrown seconds earlier.

Ravens defensive back Lardarius Webb had been penalized for holding Pryor, whose ball toss was ruled taunting by the trailing official. The bogus call effectively drained all the momentum the Cleveland offense had built up for the first time since scoring 20 first-quarter points.

The offsetting penalties brought the ball back to the Baltimore 30, from where McCown’s next heave was picked off by linebacker C. J. Mosley at the goal line. That was as close as the Browns have come this season to winning a game.

And now, Thursday night looms as a national television audience anxiously awaits (momentary loss of control of my sarcasm gene) the next big NFL game featuring Color Rush uniforms.

Will the Browns wear their all-Seal Brown uniforms? Or maybe the bright orange uniforms. The Ravens probably will wear their all purple uniforms. Perhaps the Browns wear all white. Inquiring football minds want to know.

The key to this one lies in the Browns’ ability to do something they haven’t done in the last five games: run the football effectively. That and the inability of their defense to stop anyone have been the major contributors to the team’s woes.

In those five games, the Browns have rushed for 321 yards, but that figure is deceiving because 180 of them were in one game. Fourth-string quarterback Kevin Hogan, inserted into the Cincinnati game due to injuries, ran for 104 of those yards.

Subtract Hogan’s total, which is an outlier, and the five-game net total becomes 207 yards, or 41.4 yards a game. Isaiah Crowell has toted the ball 51 times in that span for 134 yards, or 2.63 yards a pop.

Putting that in perspective, Crowell gained 133 of the club’s 145 yards against the Ravens in their first meeting, breaking off an 85-yard touchdown romp in the big first quarter. That was when fans wanted to believe the Cleveland offensive line didn’t miss Alex Mack or Mitchell Schwartz, who opted to leave as free agents.

This one could very well end up a lower scoring affair than the first game since neither team has shown the ability to put points on the scoreboard with any degree of regularity.

We all know how bad the Cleveland offense is from a scoring standpoint. The Ravens, believe it or not, live in the same neighborhood. They average only 19.25 points a game; the Browns are at 18.7. They have scored only 11 touchdowns. Their highest scoring output was 27 points in a loss to Oakland.

Quarterback Joe Flacco, a Browns nemesis over the years, has thrown only six scoring passes (and seven interceptions) this season, four to speedy wide receiver Mike Wallace. The ground game averages only 82 yards a game. Former Brown Terrance West leads the way with just 445 yards and three touchdowns.

The standout Baltimore defense is the difference. It allows just 72 yards a game on the ground. Crowell’s big day in the first game was an anomaly. What the Ravens offense misses, the defense cleans up. Each of their games has been decided by eight points or less.

And then there are the Browns, who rank 31st in the NFL against the run, 28th against the forward pass and sit all alone at the bottom of the statistics in overall defense.  Is it any wonder they hunger for their first victory?

So what is Thursday’s game looking like? Like a game where you want to have No-Doz handy just in case. It’s going to be an NFL Network snoozefest that could set the game back several years.

Flacco will play just well enough to quell the defense’s urge to lobby Harbaugh for backup quarterback Ryan Mallett as kicker Justin Tucker bails him out with a pair of first-half field goals, equaling Cody Parkey’s output for the Browns.

He recovers in the second half, hooking up with Wallace and tight end Dennis Pitta for third-quarter scores, while the defense completely shuts down Cody Kessler and his merry men if. Make it:

Ravens 20, Browns 6

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