Five thoughts on the Ravens' 27-10 win over the Cleveland Browns Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium:
Ravens Avoided a Letdown and Kept Control of Cleveland for Most of the Game
Although there was an opponent on the other side of the line, the Ravens' own state of mind was going to determine how this one unfolded. They're obviously better than the young, winless Browns, but would they suffer a letdown after such a tough loss the week before? If they started slowly and let the Browns hang around, could it turn into an upset? Well, the answer to all was no. The Ravens were briefly behind in the second quarter, but they were otherwise in control thanks to an opportunistic defense, which forced four turnovers, and the brilliance of punter Sam Koch, who dropped three kicks inside the 5-yard line, keeping the Browns offense pinned back all day. Rather than letting down, the Ravens played a sound game, with no turnovers, and efficiently recorded a win that kept them in the driver's seat for a wild-card playoff berth. Their task is straightforward now: win twice at home, against the 3-11 Indianapolis Colts and 5-9 Cincinnati Bengals, and they're back in the postseason for the first time since 2014.
Opportunistic Ravens Defense Made All the Difference With Four Takeaways
If there was one aspect of this game you could see coming, it was the opportunistic Ravens forcing some turnovers out of the Browns, who have the league's worst giveaway-takeaway ratio. A larger question, in my mind, was what the Ravens would do with the chances, i.e., would they take enough advantage? The first turnover, an interception in the second quarter, produced zero points when the Browns defense stopped the Ravens on the goal line. But the next two turnovers were game-changers. After the Ravens re-took the lead at 10-7, linebacker C.J. Mosley forced a fumble with the help of safety Tony Jefferson, which the Ravens quickly converted into a touchdown. Then, with the Ravens still ahead by just a touchdown in the third quarter, linebacker Za'Darius Smith forced a fumble on the goal line that defensive tackle Brandon Williams recovered for a touchdown, a decisive play, opening a lead very likely too large for the Browns to overcome. The fourth and final turnover, a Brandon Carr interception in the end zone, "sealed the game for us," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said. In the end, the turnovers were THE difference.
Ravens Road Record Is Vastly Improved
The Ravens undertook several initiatives in 2017, targeting areas where they wanted to improve. You heard about the running game and the pass rush, but one flew under the radar: They wanted to perform better on the road. It was an area where they'd slipped, winning just 10 of 32 games since their Super Bowl triumph. With Sunday's win, they finished their road schedule with a 4-4 record, marking just the second time in the past five years that they weren't under .500 away from home. No doubt, the plus turnover ratio and a sharp drop in penalties have been key to the improvement – that means no giving games away – as is having a solid defense, which almost always gives you a chance to win. But whatever the explanation, the Ravens simply were more poised on the road this year. After the Browns took the lead in the second quarter Sunday and you could start to feel an upset possibly brewing, the Ravens responded with a 75-yard touchdown drive, a turnover and another quick touchdown. That's how you control a game on the road.
The Ravens Passing Game Succeeded Because the Browns Had to Honor Alex Collins and the Running Attack
As advertised, the Browns were extremely tough against the run, so tough that the Ravens pretty much had to abandon their ground game for long stretches. Alex Collins took a pounding and had his quietest game in a while. "We had to throw it," Harbaugh said. That meant the passing game had to come through, potentially a dicey proposition because receiver Jeremy Maclin went out early with a knee injury and the Browns also were bringing serious pressure. But Joe Flacco adeptly handled the heat, repeatedly finding Mike Wallace and Benjamin Watson open on intermediate routes because the Browns were stacked against the run. And even though the ground game was quiet, Collins' success in prior games meant the Browns had to honor the Ravens' play-action fakes, which also helped open up the passing game. In the end, Flacco had a strong game with nine completions to wideouts, five to tight ends and 12 to backs.
Koch was awarded a game ball, which was entirely appropriate after the Browns seemingly spent most of the game starting drives inside their own 5-yard line. "Dude is amazing," defensive lineman Brandon Williams said … Make sure you also tip your cap to Chris Moore, the gunner, who got in position to down the kicks … A week after getting humbled on national television, the Ravens' pass defense bounced back with one of its best games of the season. Cleveland quarterback DeShone Kizer ended up with seven rushing attempts, almost all because he couldn't find open targets. Kizer barely tested rookie cornerback Marlon Humphrey, and Carr also was solid. "Our coverage was pretty much there all day," Harbaugh said … It didn't work out, but I didn't blame Harbaugh for going for it on fourth down near the goal line in the second quarter. It was a percentage play against a team with a mistake-prone offense. Even if you don't make it, you have to believe your defense can make a stop or force a turnover … Linebacker Matthew Judon's considerable impact on the game can be seen in his stat line: a sack, three quarterback hits, three tackles for losses and six overall tackles.
Check out all the best photos from Cleveland as the Ravens battle the Browns in week 15!