Five thoughts on the Ravens' 16-10 win over the Cleveland Browns Sunday night at M&T Bank Stadium:
On a night when a classic AFC North brawl broke out in prime time, the Browns' defense gave their team a great chance to win by intercepting Lamar Jackson four times and limiting the Ravens to one touchdown. But the Ravens' defense didn't let the upset go down. Delivering its most important performance of 2021, the defense stifled the Browns' powerful ground game and carried the Ravens to a win that kept them in first place in the division and also elevated them to the top spot in the AFC playoff race entering December. It wasn't a style-points performance, but it illustrated an evolving truth about the Ravens – namely, that they're 8-3 because they have more than one way to beat you. Usually, it's magic from Jackson or Justin Tucker that's most responsible these days, and those two certainly had major roles Sunday night. But as the Browns and a national TV audience learned, the Ravens' defense also can lead the way in producing the right result. "The defense was just off the charts," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said.
I admit, when the Ravens' top run stopper, Calais Campbell, was declared inactive 90 minutes before the game due to a concussion, I had a bad feeling about Baltimore's ability to stop the Browns' powerful ground game. No team runs the ball better in 2021 than the Browns with Nick Chubb and one of the league's best O-lines, and without Campbell, the Ravens' defensive front consisted of Brandon Williams, who had missed the previous three games with a shoulder injury, and Justin Ellis, Justin Madubuike, Broderick Washington and Isaiah Mack – none of whom were penciled in as starters when the season began. But while it may have been a mismatch on paper, it was not on the field. Ravens Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale stacked the box with extra defenders, hoping to stop the run and force the Browns to pass. "The idea was to make them one-dimensional," cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. The plan couldn't have worked better. With linebackers Patrick Queen and Tyus Bowser leading the support of the stout front, the Ravens didn't budge. And the Browns couldn't make enough plays in the passing game to win.
You know Jackson isn't going to be happy when he reviews the film, as several of his interceptions were attributable to errant throws or incorrect reads. "I just told my team, 'I owe y'all," he said after the game. He had never thrown four picks in a game as a pro, and no doubt, when he tossed three in a row near the end of the first half, it was stunning. But one of Jackson's best attributes is he doesn't hang his head when he makes mistakes; to the contrary, he plainly itches to get back on the field and right the wrong, make amends. Sure enough, he attacked the second half with a palpable fury, running for gains and not blinking as he continued to drop back and look for receivers. Although the Browns brought a lot of pressure with Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney, Jackson made enough plays to win, with help from Tucker, whose 3-for-3 night on field goals was crucial. And even on an off night, Jackson produced the one play everyone will remember when he scrambled 23 yards behind the line before unleashing a deep pass that Mark Andrews grabbed for the Ravens' only touchdown. Pure magic.
No one is going to suggest the Ravens blew away Cleveland's strong defensive front with their ground game. Although Jackson rushed for 68 yards, Baltimore's four other ball carriers totaled just 80 yards between them on 26 carries. Nonetheless, it was crucial to the outcome that Ravens Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman stuck with the ground game. The Ravens ran 20 more plays than the Browns and had possession of the ball for roughly 14 more minutes. By sticking with the run and converting a healthy seven of 15 third downs into firsts, the Ravens' offense made life easier for the defense. Although the running game wasn't dominant, it did produce important yardage (Devonta Freeman gained 52 yards on 16 carries) and set up the short passing game with which the Ravens used to move the chains, keep drives going and keep the Browns' offense on the bench.
Short takes: It's no secret the Ravens' defense has made a habit of giving up big plays and points late in close games this season, but it didn't happen in this one. When the Browns took possession late, down six, they had a chance to drive to a winning touchdown. Four plays later, the game was over. Bowser, who is only getting better and better, made the final stop of the game for the second straight week … Rookie Odafe Oweh gave one of his most impactful performances as he steadily put pressure on the Browns' Baker Mayfield … It's hard to win when you lose four turnovers, but the Ravens forced two of their own (both fumbles) to ease the blow. They would have had a third if Chuck Clark didn't drop a late interception that was right in his hands … Of the 13 possessions in the first half (not counting the kneel-down to end the half), five ended with turnovers, four ended with punts and one ended with a missed field goal. Whew … This was a tough result for the Browns, who now have three more losses than the Ravens as December nears.