Which team has the best defense in the NFL? Neither the Ravens nor Browns are willing to give an inch.
Baltimore and Cleveland enter their Week 10 confrontation at M&T Bank Stadium with the league's top-ranked defensive units.
The Ravens have allowed the fewest points per game (13.8), lead the league in sacks (35) and are first in red zone defense. The Browns have yielded the fewest yards (234.8 per game) and lead in third down defense and pass defense.
Nobody needs to tell inside linebacker Patrick Queen that both defenses will be looking for bragging rights on Sunday.
"It's a lot of motivation," Queen said. "It's a lot of talk right now, and we just want to talk with our pads, honestly. We just want to go out there and dominate one play at a time, have fun with it, talk a little trash on the field and go at it again."
The Ravens are already one up on the Browns, handing them a 28-3 thrashing Week 4 in Cleveland. However, Cleveland starting quarterback Deshaun Watson missed that game with an injured throwing shoulder, leaving rookie quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson to make his first career start against the ferocious Ravens defense. Baltimore's defense dominated, intercepting Thompson-Robinson three times and sacking him four times.
However, Watson is healthy again and coming off his best game of the season in Cleveland's 27-0 win over the Cardinals. Watson makes Cleveland's entire offense better, and the Ravens expect a worthy challenge trying to keep Watson and leading receiver Amari Cooper (35 catches, 617 yards, two touchdowns) in check.
"He's a good veteran quarterback who's been in the league for a while," Ravens All-Pro linebacker Roquan Smith said. "I have a lot of respect for him. He's a guy who can let it rip, and he's able to use his legs as well, so we'll be very prepared for it.
"I have a lot of confidence in (Defensive Coordinator) Mike (Macdonald) and the defensive staff to have us ready for the game. (I'm) looking forward to it."
The reputation of Macdonald and the Ravens defensive staff keeps rising around the league like a thermometer in the sun.
Baltimore's defense has shown that it can take over a game, particularly if playing with the lead. The Ravens have scored first in eight of their nine games, and if they can force Watson into obvious passing situations Sunday, it will allow them to dial up even more of their pass rush packages.
"I just think it's us being able to create so many different pictures and give different looks out of those same pictures, and when you do that, it definitely confuses people … that's tough for any quarterback," Smith said.
The Browns have a different defensive style than Baltimore's, but it's also extremely effective. It starts with All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett, who's tied for second in the league in sacks (9.5), and who is difficult for any one player to block.
Garrett was limited to one sack and three quarterback hits against the Ravens in Week 4, but Baltimore led 21-3 by halftime and Lamar Jackson had a season-low 19 passing attempts. The Ravens may look to neutralize Garrett with their running attack, which is ranked No. 1 in the NFL and coming off a 298-yard performance against the Seahawks.
However, for Jackson to throw effectively Sunday, the Ravens will need to keep Garrett away from him. That presents a challenge not only for left tackle Ronnie Stanley, but for Baltimore's entire offensive line because the Browns will line up Garrett in different spots, trying to put him in the best situation to be a disruptive force.
Cleveland's blitz packages may not be as diverse as Baltimore's, but with Garrett, being exotic isn't always necessary.
"He's definitely a guy that you have to know where he's at," Ravens center Tyler Linderbaum said. "(He's) one of the best D-ends in the league [and] one of the best defenders in the league.
"The tape speaks for itself. He's a guy that has all the tools. Just his size, strength and speed – it definitely makes it challenging. That starts with the gameplan. Just trusting our fundamentals and technique to get the job done."
Under first-year Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz, who attended Mount St. Joseph in Baltimore and won a Super Bowl with the Eagles as their coordinator in 2018, the Browns' defense has gelled like never before in Garrett's career.
As Garrett has said, Cleveland's defense isn't just a one-man show. Cornerback Denzel Ward, who will likely spend time defending both Zay Flowers and Odell Beckham Jr., is a two-time Pro Bowler. Safety Grant Delpit, linebackers Sione Takitaki and Jeremiah Owusu Koramoah and cornerback Martin Emerson are all playing at a high level.
"They're very aggressive. They're very attack oriented," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "They're kind of the mindset of a puncher, they come out swinging, and they're downhill at every level – tight coverage all the way up to linebackers downhill versus the run. They understand who they are, and they play well, very hard.
"I don't think it's any secret, they're just really good. They can rush the passer, and they can cover. They get people into third-and-long a ton because they're so successful on first and second down."
The defense being played by Baltimore and Cleveland is another reason why many believe that the AFC North is the league's toughest division. All four AFC North teams would make the playoffs if it started today, and the Ravens (7-2) don't want to allow the Browns (5-3) to make the divisional race even tighter.
Smith is never one to shy away from a challenge, and of course he believes Baltimore has the NFL's best defense. But in Sunday's clash between two defensive titans, Smith is sticking to the basics. Baltimore is riding a four-game winning streak and has back-to-back home games against division rivals Cleveland and Cincinnati (Thursday, Nov. 15). Smith just wants to keep stacking W's.
"We can be the not-so-best defense or the best defense, as long as we're winning, that's all that matters to me, and that's what matters to most of the guys in the locker room," Smith said.
"[We're] definitely focused on this Sunday, but I think it's (the next two games) just going to separate the men from the boys. That's how I look at it, and we're ready for whatever, whenever, however, whoever, whomever or whatever the case may be."