For many years, games against Cleveland were the surest wins on the Ravens' schedule. Predictable drubbings of the AFC North's worst team didn't tell us much we didn't already know.
But we learned a lot about the Ravens when they went to Cleveland last season, and I think we also could learn a lot when they return to Cleveland to play the Browns this Sunday.
A year ago, the Ravens' 11-game winning streak against the Browns was snapped when they lost in Cleveland in Week 9. The last-place Browns, destined for a 4-12 finish, tried to give the game away late, but the Ravens made too many of their own mistakes.
I don't think it was a coincidence the Ravens went 8-8 and fell short of the playoffs for the first time under Head Coach John Harbaugh in the same season when they also lost to Cleveland for the first time since 2007. The Ravens weren't up to their usual caliber, finishing with a 2-6 road record. Their loss to the Browns was an indication that something was wrong.
A year later, the Browns are looking markedly better in 2014 after undergoing yet another regime change. Already in this young season, they've staged a huge rally in Pittsburgh, erasing a 24-point deficit, before losing at the final whistle; and they've battled back and forth with Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints before winning at the final whistle.
It's too soon to know whether the Browns merely are setting up their long-suffering fans for more disappointment, but at this point, they look dangerous on both sides of the ball. I can't remember the last time the Browns hosted Baltimore actually thinking they should win. It's going to be a battle to see who is more fired up Sunday, Cleveland's players or fans.
While the Browns have opened eyes, the Ravens have sent mixed signals so far in 2014. They stumbled in a disappointing season-opening loss to the Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium, but followed that up by pounding the Steelers last Thursday night. Just like the Browns, the Ravens are .500 going into Sunday. But unlike the Browns, the Ravens expect more. Harbaugh said he believes his team is "destined for special things."
As with all teams early in the season, the Ravens are still seeking answers to a slate of questions. Can their offense settle into a consistently productive routine? Can Joe Flacco continue to avoid throwing picks? Can their defense continue to apply pressure and keep opponents out of the end zone?
If the Ravens are indeed going to be as formidable as they demonstrated in flattening Pittsburgh, they should go into fired-up Cleveland and win. I'm not saying their season will careen off the rails if they don't. But it would make a strong statement, the kind a team makes when a playoff-bound season is gathering momentum.
At the same time, if the Ravens don't bring their "A" game Sunday, they might come home with a 1-2 record and more questions swirling.
"We're going to have to be at our best," Harbaugh said Monday.
Like I said, we could learn a lot.
The Browns defense has been increasingly solid for the past few years. The renewed excitement they're generating is mostly attributable to their offense playing better after years of relative dormancy.
Along the same lines, the Ravens' high hopes for 2014 also have a lot to do with putting an improved offense on the field.
What do the offenses of the Ravens and Browns have in common? A lot.
The Ravens' new offensive coordinator is Gary Kubiak, previously the Houston Texans' head coach. The Browns' new offensive coordinator is Kyle Shanahan, who held the same job on Kubiak's Houston staff in 2008 and 2009.
Kubiak and Shanahan are apples from the same tree. They believe in a zone-stretch running game, a play-action-based passing game and a rhythmic tempo. Both learned it while working for Mike Shanahan, Kyle's father. Kyle furthered his education under Kubiak.
While looking for a new offensive coordinator last winter, the Ravens interviewed Kyle and, by all accounts, liked him. Someone (me) even suggested they should hire him. After Kubiak entered the fray and the Ravens hired him instead, Kyle landed in Cleveland.
When the Ravens and Browns meet Sunday, it will be teacher against pupil, apple against apple. Welcome to the AFC North, circa 2014. As the old saying goes (actually, I just made it up): May the best purveyor of the zone-stretch philosophy win.