When the National Football League put together the 2018 schedule, Sunday’s finale between the Browns and Ravens in Baltimore seemed like an inconsequential game.
By then, the schedule makers probably figured, the Browns would be buried in the AFC North basement again and the Ravens would make a good natural finish. You know, the Cleveland-Baltimore thing.
This game has drama written all over it in several different ways, some of which will be conflicting for many Browns fans. Their rooting interest will not be the least bit palatable.
Wanting the Browns to win their fourth game in a row and thus sweep yet another division season series will be the main theme of course. However, myriad intriguing story lines abound.
Yes, the Browns are hot, having won their last three in a row and five of their last six. But so are the Ravens. Maybe even hotter.
They have rebounded from a 4-5 start, which triggered whispers about the coaching future of head coach John Harbaugh. That included a 12-9 loss in Cleveland in week five.
Since their bye in week 10, the Ravens are virtually unbeatable, winning five of their last six games (the only setback a three-point loss in Kansas City) to vault to the top of the division with a 9-6 record, a half game better than Pittsburgh.
That half-game difference, courtesy of the 21-21 deadlock the Browns and Steelers forged in the season opener in Cleveland, has caused some anxiety among Steelers fans.
It also creates a fascinating rooting situation for Browns fans. A Baltimore victory clinches the division crown and eliminates the Steelers, who wind up the regular season at home against Cincinnati.
Imagine that. The Steelers, who have abused the Browns for the last umpteen years, need help from the very team whose fan base they have tortured in order to play at least one extra game.
The Ravens will be eliminated if the Browns knock them off again and the Steelers beat the Bengals, which is a strong probability considering the way they played Sunday in Cleveland.
So who do Browns fans root for? Do they root for the Browns to finish the season in grand style and provide a path for the Steelers to squeak into the postseason? Or root for the Ravens to end the Browns’ return-to-relevance season so the Steelers will be shut out of the playoffs.
A conundrum perhaps for Browns Nation, for sure, but also a ratings boost for CBS. Now that the NFL has switched the Browns-Ravens game to a later start, it conveniently coincides with the Steelers-Bengals contest on the network.
The Ravens will know their fate faster because they control their destiny. Win and they are in. Lose and hope the Bengals, playing at the same time of the day, can pull off the upset.
So what does history in the Browns-Ravens series indicate? If that’s the barometer used to forecast the immediate future, it certainly doesn’t look good for Cleveland fans or the Steelers.
The Browns have visited Baltimore 19 times since reentering the NFL in 1999 and won four times, two of the victories gained in overtime. The Ravens have outscored the Browns by more than 200 points in that time.
One other thing: This will not be the same Ravens team this time around with regard to couple of new key parts of the offense. Flashy Lamar Jackson, not Joe Flacco, is the quarterback and fellow rookie Gus Edwards has become the main running back.
More on that in the game preview later in the week.
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You have to love the swagger and sometimes braggadocio of Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield. Nothing wrong with being self-assured, especially if you’re a rookie quarterback in the NFL.
It certainly has lifted the entire Cleveland offense to heights no one would have even dreamed of at the beginning of the season, He has done the miraculous. He has transformed this team into a bunch of overachievers on both sides of the football.
That is an intangible that can’t be taught. Either you have it or you don’t. This kid has it in abundance and has backed it up.
The new Browns for years have been searching for the quarterback who possesses the “it” factor. In the old days, Otto Graham had it; Frank Ryan had it; Bill Nelsen had it; Brian Sipe had it; Bernie Kosar had it.
Pretenders like Tim Couch, Charlie Frye, Brady Quinn, Brian Hoyer and, yes, even Johnny Manziel, came along later and were thought to have had the “it” factor.
Mayfield in a very short period of time has blown them all away. And that’s why he should finally put to bed this distaste he has for Hue Jackson, his former head coach.
I can understand why he feels the way he does and, at the same time, rather enjoyed him displaying his feelings toward Jackson the two times he has had the opportunity. Makes for good theater and interesting sports talk radio.
But it’s time for Mayfield to give it a permanent rest. Twice is more than enough to harbor resentment. He has clearly made his point. Now it’s time to move on, quit the childish displays of anger and become a true professional. Keep the feelings, but learn to hide them.
This is not meant to protect Jackson as much as it is a suggestion for Mayfield to be remembered not for that, but what he does on a football field and how much he means to this franchise.
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Offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens added a couple of new wrinkles in the Bengals victory Sunday, both contributing to touchdowns. He has put more creativity into a Cleveland offense than any other coordinator in the last two decades.
On the first, wide receiver Jarvis Landry hooked up with Breshad Perriman on a 63-yard pass on the tail end of a gadget play that began with a handoff to Antonio Callaway. It led to the second touchdown of the afternoon in the second quarter.
Then early in the third quarter, Rashard Higgins scored touchdown No 3, taking a pass from Mayfield 17 yards to the end zone, diving acrobatically just inside the pylon at the end of the play.
What made it so creative was the design of the play. Higgins lined up in trips left and delayed running his route a second or two after the other two receivers cleared the area. He then ran a shallow cross to the strong side of the formation, caught the ball in stride from Mayfield and sprinted to the end zone.
Mayfield earlier connected with Higgins for a 55-yard gain on the second possession of the game, but the wideout was penalized for offensive pass interference, an iffy call at best. Higgins gently nudged Bengals free safety Jessie Bates to get a little separation to make the catch.
Michael Irvin of the Dallas Cowboys made a career – and the Pro Football Hall of Fame – with moves much worse than that without drawing a flag.
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Finally . . . Nick Chubb set the club record for rushing by a rookie in the Bengals victory. His 112 yards give him 972 on the season, passing Trent Richardson and the legendary Jim Brown for that honor. A little perspective here: Brown did it in 12 games. . . . Mayfield’s three TD passes against Cincinnati gives him 24 on the season, only two away from tying Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson for the most scoring passes by a rookie. He has thrown at least one touchdown pass in each of his 12 starts. . . . The Bengals ran only 46 plays from scrimmage for just 209 yards. One can only imagine how different it would have been if Andy Dalton, A. J. Green and Tyler Boyd were healthy. . . . The Browns owned the football for 35½ minutes. . . . Linebacker Genard Avery continues to impress in relief of the injured Christian Kirksey. The rookie had four tackles (three solo), a sack, two tackles for loss and a quarterback hit. . . . Duke Johnson Jr. touch watch: Two carries, 12 yards; six receptions, 54 yards. Eight touches, 66 yards. Season totals: 36 carries, 180 yards; 46 receptions, 426 yards. Totals: 82 touches, 606 yards. Average yards per touch: 7.39 yards.