Five thoughts on the Ravens' 31-15 win over the Cleveland Browns Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium:
I'll get to how they did it in a minute, but the thing to do now is step back and focus on what the Ravens did by avenging their last loss and stretching their winning streak to 11 straight games. They've established a great record over the years, won two Super Bowls, enjoyed postseason success, but they've always had to do it the hard way, i.e., go on the road and win as underdogs. No more. This win assured them of being the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs for the first time. It's a sweet deal. They get a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs, which means some team is going to have to beat them at M&T Bank Stadium for them not to go to the Super Bowl. "It's huge," said guard Marshal Yanda, and yes, it's quite an accomplishment. The entire football operation deserves kudos, from the front office to the coaches to the players. Think about this: The Ravens, those famous playoff road warriors, don't have to get on another plane until they're headed to Miami for the Super Bowl, provided they get that far. I told you it was a sweet deal.
No one is going to suggest the Browns have brought out the best in the Ravens in 2019. Cleveland won the first meeting in September, and the Ravens were sloppier than usual at times in this rematch. Penalties hurt them. The ball was on ground three times. Baltimore trailed early and did not score until near the end of the first half. But there's a reason why they're Super Bowl contenders and the Browns are going nowhere. The Ravens have a lot more going for them, and that became plainly evident once Lamar Jackson and the offense got untracked. Cleveland's defense couldn't stop them, and suddenly, a close, tense game was neither. After trailing, 6-0, near the end of the first half, the Ravens went touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, field goal, touchdown on their next five possessions. And to be clear, it was Jackson's passing, not his running, that got the offense going. He threw for 138 yards and two touchdowns in the last two minutes of the first half, a flurry from which the Browns never recovered. The quarterback whose passing was being scrutinized and questioned in September now owns the franchise record for touchdown passes in a season.
At the time, it didn't seem like it would be the key play of the game. But it surely was. The Browns had that 6-0 lead and also had the ball with a little over two minutes left in the first half. On a third-and-1 play at their 22, Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield pitched to Kareem Hunt. Jaylon Ferguson, the Ravens' rookie linebacker, read the call and blasted Hunt for a loss, with help from Earl Thomas III. Instead of gaining the one yard they needed, maintaining possession and trying to extend their lead before halftime, the Browns had to punt. It didn't seem overly important because the Ravens were out of timeouts, theoretically limiting their ability to pull off a successful drive in hurry-up mode. But they scored two touchdowns in hurry-up mode before halftime. It was odd in that Jackson had not looked especially sharp throwing the ball to that point, but suddenly, his receivers were open and he was throwing strikes. His under-the-gun pass to Mark Andrews for the second touchdown ranks with the unit's best plays of the year. Anyway, the point is none of it might have happened if the Browns had converted that third-and-short. Ferguson's stop turned the game around.
If anything, this game presented an opportunity for the Ravens' defense to demonstrate how far it has come since its early-season struggles. Those culminated with an ugly loss to the Browns that convinced Baltimore's front office to make a flurry of personnel moves. Between the additions of those new players and the returns of Brandon Williams and Jimmy Smith, who missed the first game due to injury, the defense was far more formidable Sunday. Cleveland's Nick Chubb, who rushed for 165 yards in the first game, was a non-factor in the rematch (45 yards on 15 carries). Mayfield passed for 150 fewer yards. In the beginning, the personnel changes were all about finding a way to stop the run, a must for any Baltimore defense. Chubb's rough Sunday indicates that mission was accomplished. The pass defense also is markedly tighter with Smith back and healthy alongside Marlon Humphrey, Thomas, etc. The Browns' receivers made some plays Sunday, but as usual, nothing in the air really hurt the Ravens. That's how you win in today's NFL.
Check out the best photos from the Ravens' week 16 game against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on December 22, 2019.
Quick Hits: After Mark Ingram II went out with a calf injury, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill more than held up as a one-two punch at running back. Edwards averaged 6.6 yards on 12 carries, and Hill, looking more and more like a weapon, totaled 51 rushing and receiving yards and a touchdown on six touches … CBS' Tony Romo on the Ravens getting to play at home throughout the playoffs: "Someone is going to have to play the game of their season to go in there and win" … The Ravens had zero sacks and three quarterback hits, so their rush didn't exactly overwhelm Mayfield. It did make itself known at times (it led to Marlon Humphrey's game-ending interception), but the coverage was the unit's strength … The Ravens finished the season 7-1 on the road, another franchise first and maybe the most impressive stat of all.