Saturday, December 29, 2018

A playoff game that isn’t

 It is not a playoff game. It can’t be. The standings say so and they do not lie. The Browns were eliminated last Sunday despite knocking off the Cincinnati Bengals at home.

So why does their season finale Sunday in Baltimore against the Ravens (a.k.a. the original Cleveland Browns) feel like a post-season game? Like a game with extra special meaning?

That’s because in this season of back-from-the-graveyard football that has lifted the spirits of Browns fans higher than just about anytime in this century, Sunday’s game has more significance than your routine season-ender. Oddsmakers say the Ravens are five points better than the Browns.

In a season where this franchise has won almost twice as many games as the previous three seasons combined, the quality of play they have displayed the last seven games elevates this one to playoff-like status. It’s a target with eyes clearly on next season, using it as a gauge as to what to look forward to in 2019.

The winning feeling, created by three straight victories and only one loss in their last six games, has produced a level of confidence in Berea that has them no longer hoping they can win. They really believe that now after all these years, it’s more than hope.

They know this will be their final game of the season and a victory will be like putting a bow on one of the biggest surprises in the National Football League in many seasons. They would love nothing better than to spoil the Ravens’ season.

That is why this is their playoff game. It is a test to confirm what they now believe after this remarkable second half of the season: The long slumbering Sleeping Giant has not just awakened. It thrives.

Wise men down through the years have said the best way to judge the quality of an NFL football team is to note how it finishes in November and December, when games are more meaningful.

The Browns have not played a game of this importance since 2007, when at 9-5 they had a legitimate shot at the playoffs, but lost in Cincinnati in the penultimate game of the season and finished in a first-place tie with the Steelers, who owned the tiebreaker.

Both clubs enter this one having won five of the last six games. The Browns do it with offense; the Ravens with a revamped running game and the league’s stingiest defense.
It’s that defense that has enabled them to be in their current position. It leads the NFL in just about every statistical category.

It permits only 284 yards a game on the average, a meager 85 yards per on the ground. The Browns netted 112 infantry-style in the first game in week five. And converting third downs is damn near impossible. Opponents have been successful just 34% of the time. The Browns are right there at 36.5%.

It appears as though the Baltimore defensive line tries to funnel everything on the ground to the outstanding linebackers corps of C. J. Mosley, Matthew Judon, Za’Darius Smith, Patrick Onwuasor and Terrell Suggs. Onwuasor, Judon, Smith and Suggs own 28 of the club’s 43 sacks.

The last time these teams met, Hue Jackson was the Browns’ head coach, Todd Haley was the offensive coordinator, Carlos Hyde was the running back, Desmond Harrison was the starting offensive left tackle and Mayfield was making only his second start as a professional.

Now, Gregg Williams is the interim head coach, Freddie Kitchens is the offensive coordinator, Nick Chubb is the running back and Greg Robinson is the offensive left tackle. The only constant is Mayfield.

The Ravens sacked him five times in the first game when the Cleveland offensive line was one of the worst in the NFL. One of the reasons for the big turnaround, though, has been the comeback performance of that line, allowing just three sacks in the last six games.

The Browns won the field-goal dominated first game, 12-9, when new kicker Greg Joseph knuckleballed a 37-yard field goal through the uprights as time ran out in overtime. Mayfield threw for 341 yards and the game’s lone touchdown.

The rookie in a short period of time has become the culture changer for the Browns, lifting the entire team inspiringly to heights it hadn’t achieved for a very, very, very long time.

In Baltimore, Joe Flacco is no longer the quarterback for the Ravens and Alex Collins is no longer the main running back. Rookie Lamar Jackson took over when Flacco went down with a sore hip and has totally changed the Ravens’ offensive approach.

Undrafted free agent Gus Edwards is the main running back, taking over when Jackson replaced Flacco. He is strictly a runner, coming out in passing situations. In the six games since this duo became the Baltimore backfield, they have accounted for 1,044 yards, or 77%, of the club’s 1,354 running yards.

Throwing the ball is an entirely different matter. Jackson, a 57% passer at the University of Louisville, is a 58% thrower in the NFL. He has thrown for only 1,022 yards and six touchdowns and been picked off three times. It’s a small sample size, for sure, but it appears Jackson is who he is – a terrific runner with an inaccurate arm.

His main targets figure to be possession receivers Willie Snead IV and Michael Crabtree, running back Buck Allen and tight end Mark Andrews, who played with Mayfield at Oklahoma, and speedy wideout John Brown.

The NFL has become a quarterback-driven league the last decade or so. Jackson’s predilection for running with the football has turned the Ravens’ into a run-first offense. Since he took over, the Ravens have averaged 226 yards a game rushing with a low of 194 in the loss to Kanas City, the club’s only setback since the bye.

There is no question Williams and his son, Blake, who has pretty much taken over as defensive coordinator, have made shutting down Jackson their No. 1 priority. Look for plenty of blitzing from just about anywhere and disguised defenses in the secondary.

As they did last week against Cincinnati’s Jeff Driskel, look for the Browns to load the box to stop the run. They want the former Heisman Trophy winner to throw the football. That’s the key. Make the Jackson offense one dimensional. Make him uncomfortable. Containment is certain to be stressed.

Jackson is a terrific runner in the open field and has the ability to slip out of the pocket, sometimes a little too quickly. That’s where the containment and gap integrity must be maintained. He is quick enough and fast enough to take advantage of defensive lapses. Strict discipline is a must.

Easier said than done? Absolutely.

So how can the Cleveland defense, which has been up and down this season against the run, pull this off? That’s where film (or is it tape?) study comes in.

Look for tendencies. Every quarterback has tendencies. What do they like to do in given situations? For example, does he favor one side of the field when trying to make a play? If so, force him in the opposite direction. Identify weaknesses and exploit them.

It’s entirely possible the Williamses will assign someone to spy on Jackson, move wherever he moves. Take away or at last minimize the run option. Strong safety Jabrill Peppers, who is capable of matching Jackson’s quickness and speed, would be the perfect choice. 

Each team has motivation to win. The Browns, of course, would rack up their first winning season since 2007. And the Ravens remember what happened a year ago at this time when they all but had a playoff spot wrapped up when the Cincinnati Bengals upset them in the final minute and eliminate them in the final game of the season..

Bottom line on this one: The Browns have a much better offense; the Ravens have a much better defense. In games like this, it’s wisest to go with the better defense. The heart says Browns; the head says Ravens with kicker Justin Tucker the difference maker. Make it:

Ravens 17, Browns 14

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