The Ravens have spent this week complimenting the Cleveland Browns for being improved across the board, more challenging and all those good things, basically the antithesis of an easy touch even though they’re 2-33-1 since the 2016 season began.
The Ravens aren’t being disingenuous with their praise. They’ve learned not to take Cleveland for granted even though they’ve won five straight games and seven of the past eight in the rivalry. “They’ve always played us really tough; a lot of our games have gone right down to the wire,” quarterback Joe Flacco said.
And that was before 2018; now things are genuinely looking up in Cleveland. Rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield has burst onto the scene, passing for nearly 500 yards in his first six-plus quarters as a pro. The Browns are 1-2-1 this season but could easily be 4-0.
Although the Ravens are favored by a field goal Sunday, it’s a game that could slip away if they aren’t careful.
But now that I, like the Ravens, have offered my obligatory words of caution, let me get to the heart of the matter as I see it: The Ravens absolutely, positively should win Sunday… provided they don’t give the game away.
Although the Browns’ defense is athletic and feisty, it is ranked No. 23 against the run, No. 24 against the pass and No. 25 in yards allowed per game. Opponents have dinged it for a lot of points, and with the Ravens ranked No. 5 in scoring, they should be able to follow suit.
The Browns’ defensive strength so far is forcing opponents into mistakes. They’ve generated 13 turnovers in four games while committing just six, giving them a league-best plus-7 ratio.
The Ravens used a similar formula to win nine games and compete for a playoff spot a year ago. Their offense struggled but their defense led the league in forcing turnovers and the team led the league with a plus-17 ratio.
When they didn’t force turnovers, though, they had a hard time winning. They’ll be on the other side of that equation Sunday, trying to avoid mistakes. I really like their chances if they stay clean against an opportunistic defense.
This year, by the way, instead of relying on turnovers, the Ravens’ winning formula generally begins with stopping the run defensively and giving Flacco time to throw. When they check those boxes, they’re a handful.
They’ve also done a pretty good job of protecting the ball so far, losing just five turnovers in four games. The only blip came in Cincinnati in Week 2 when Flacco tossed two interceptions and lost a fumble in the Ravens’ only defeat. But those are Flacco’s only picks this year. He had thrown six by this point a year ago.
A bigger problem has been Alex Collins’ fumbling – two in four games, including one that looked ominous at the time in Pittsburgh last Sunday night. Given the Browns’ low ranking against the run, I expect the Ravens to pound their ground game Sunday, which could mean a heavy load for Collins. The game could come down to how much, if at all, he loses the ball.
As for when the Browns have the ball, Mayfield has exhibited so much promise that Cleveland’s fans are more excited than they’ve been in years.
But even though he’s an exceptional rookie, he’s still a rookie; this is his first home start. With their experienced leadership on defense, the Ravens should be able to take advantage of that.
So far, Mayfield has opposed the Jets and Raiders, teams not likely to be in the playoff hunt. The Ravens’ goal is to give Mayfield his “welcome to the NFL” moment.
Pro Football Focus ranks the Ravens No. 8 in overall performance through four games. The Browns are No. 30, which doesn’t support the narrative that they’re improved.
They are, though, or so it seems to me.
But so are the Ravens, who made a definitive statement to the rest of the NFL with last Sunday’s win in Pittsburgh.
To keep their fast start going, they don’t necessarily have to pile up points and yards Sunday. They mostly just need to hold onto the ball.