Eisenberg: Beating the Browns Is More Important Than Beating the Steelers


On the surface, it makes no sense whatsoever.

The Ravens are coming off a classic game, an unforgettable renewal of their most heated rivalry. A primetime national audience watched them go toe-to-toe with a Super Bowl contender until they finally succumbed to a record performance by a future Hall of Fame quarterback.

It was a heartbreaking loss, yes, but big picture, NFL games don't get much bigger or better than what unfolded Sunday night in Pittsburgh.

Now, in the wake of that, the Ravens are heading into a run-of-the-mill early Sunday afternoon contest against a winless team, the Cleveland Browns, before what surely will be many thousands of empty seats.

In terms of drama, viewership and sizzle, all the stuff that sets social media aflame, there's no doubt one game is far more significant than the other.

But in terms of the Ravens' playoff prospects, as crazy as it sounds, the Cleveland game is more important.

Heading into Sunday night, the Ravens knew they could lose in Pittsburgh and still qualify for the AFC playoffs if they bounced back with wins in their final three games. Sure enough, that's the case.

But if they lose Sunday in Cleveland, the Ravens will no longer control their fate. It's possible they could still make the playoffs if they win their final two games and finish 9-7, but they'd need help, and even if they get a lot of it, advancing to the playoffs wouldn't be assured.

Bottom line, the Ravens' road to the playoffs is far simpler and more promising if they beat the Browns.

In that respect, it's actually a bigger game than the instant classic that unfolded in Pittsburgh.

The challenge for the Ravens will be getting up for Cleveland after playing such a thrilling game. It's human nature to suffer a letdown, win or lose, but especially in the latter case. After the Ravens lost in similar fashion in Pittsburgh near the end of last season, they laid an egg in their next game.

But a year ago, of course, they had nothing to play for, having been eliminated from the playoffs by the loss in Pittsburgh. This year, they still have an excellent opportunity to make the playoffs for the first time since 2014. They end the season with games against the Browns, Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals, who are a combined 8-31 this season after going 0-3 Sunday. As NBC's Al Michaels said Sunday night, a closing schedule "doesn't get any sweeter than that."

That alone should help the Ravens put Pittsburgh behind them and get ready to play the Browns.

And actually, regardless of the caliber of their closing schedule, the Ravens have been a level-headed bunch this season, adept at quickly putting behind them whatever happened in their last game, be it positive or negative. Head Coach John Harbaugh and locker room leaders such as Terrell Suggs and Joe Flacco continually espouse that philosophy, and while it may drive the media and some fans nuts to hear players talking about turning the page as soon as a game ends, it's a sign of maturity.

Yes, getting over this result will be harder than most; the Ravens' bitter disappointment was evident in their downcast expressions and clipped responses after the game.

But I also think it's possible the defeat could have a galvanizing effect.

No, the defense didn't perform well, but few opponents are going to match the offensive challenges the Steelers present; I still think it's a playoff-caliber defense, and one that, I'm guessing, will be determined to play better. Meanwhile, offensively, the Ravens have found a groove, and if anything, the Pittsburgh game bolstered that unit's growing confidence.

There's always second-guessing after a defeat, in some cases warranted. The Ravens certainly made their share of mistakes Sunday night. But I have a hard time being too negative about what was, in a way, their most hopeful performance of 2017. That was a team that was viable in all areas, on offense, defense and special teams; a team that could beat you more than one way.

Now, the goal is for them to put all that together in, cough, that truly important game in Cleveland.

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