After a week off, the Baltimore Ravens travel to the shores of Lake Erie for an AFC North clash with the Cleveland Browns. The Ravens were beat up in their first game without Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb, as the Texans offense rolled early and a struggling Joe Flacco-led offense never made it a game in Houston. Despite the extra week off, massive defensive tackle Haloti Ngata is nursing knee and shoulder injuries that limited him in practice this week.
The Browns enter the game fresh off the first win for new owner Jimmy Haslam. It was a 7-6 slog through ugly Cleveland weather, but it was still a win -- their second in three games. Now, they host a hated division rival who they have not beat in nearly five years. Brandon Weeden made it a game in the first meeting this season, with a Hail Mary attempt sailing through the end zone as time expired. A pick-six was the difference in the Thursday night game in September, and the Browns have improved significantly since the first month of the season. It's their final game before the Bye Week, and they're hopeful they may be catching a banged-up Ravens team at the right time.
Meet the Browns
The Browns are 2-6 this season, but there are reasons for optimism in Cleveland. Young rookies Weeden, Trent Richardson, and Josh Gordon have all made significant contributions through the first half of the season and acquitted themselves well enough. Richardson is coming off a career effort, as he rumbled to 122 yards against the Chargers last week. The Alabama back also scored the game-clinching touchdown early in the mud, and he was warmly greeted by the great Jim Brown afterwards.
Richardson will try to build off that effort last week and run on a Baltimore defense that was exposed throughout the month of October. Teams ran all over the Ravens defense, and that was before the rash of injuries. Richardson seems to be on the mend from a rib cartilage issue, and another week should have him nearly full-go for the Ravens. Baltimore understands the challenge, as they spent much of the week heaping praise on the rookie, even calling him the toughest back in the league to bring down.
On the other side of the ball, the Browns will have an entirely new look this time for Flacco. Secondary leader Joe Haden, one of the NFL's best corners, was out for the first meeting, as it fell during his four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance enhancing drugs. The Browns defense is a completely different unit with Haden in there, and he'll likely match up with the speedy Torrey Smith on the outside. The Browns will also get a boost up front, as Sunday will mark the first appearance for defensive tackle Phil Taylor. The 2011 first-round pick tore his pectoral muscle in the spring, but he's now off the PUP list and was activated on Friday.
Corner Dimitri Patterson has been ruled out, meaning that Buster Skrine will continue to see significant action. Skrine has been repeatedly targeted this season, but he had his best outing last week against the Chargers and earned a nod as fourth captain this week.
Meet the Ravens
Baltimore raced out to an early commanding lead in the AFC North, but with the reemergence of the Steelers and an injury bug that has bitten often, their position is no longer as entrenched. At 5-2, they will be fresh off a Bye Week and facing a team they have absolutely owned in the John Harbaugh era. Harbaugh, as well as his quarterback, has never lost to the Browns and they don't intend to have that first blemish occur in Week 9.
But the Ravens are also coming off their worst loss in five years, a 30-point drubbing in Houston. They're still adjusting to life without Webb at corner and Lewis in the middle barking out calls. Reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs made his unexpected return in Week 7 and is working his way back into shape. He's terrorized the Browns in his career, constantly forcing fumbles and crushing a laundry list of Cleveland quarterbacks. It's likely that the Ravens will need him to make an impact at some point Sunday. Ngata, their anchor on the interior, is questionable and will not be at 100 percent for a defense that's already 30th in the league against the run.
On the offensive side of the ball, quarterback Joe Flacco and the new no-huddle attack has slowed a bit in recent weeks. The offense struggled to find the end zone against the Texans and Chiefs, and needed a Jacoby Jones kick return to edge out the Cowboys. But while Flacco's numbers have regressed a little bit, he still leads a 5-2 team that will be favored on the road in the division.
While the Browns pass defense is much improved with Haden, expect Flacco to expose weaknesses in the secondary and repeatedly target Anquan Boldin. Smith is the primary deep threat, but it's Boldin who is Flacco's reliable possession receiver -- and the one who will likely have a favorable corner matchup with either Sheldon Brown or Skrine. The Browns rush defense has been up-and-down this season, getting lit up one week and slamming the door the next. They held dynamic Ravens rusher Ray Rice to just 2.7 yards per carry in September, but Baltimore should still feed their All-Pro back early on the road.
Local Takes: Browns
In his scouting report of the Ravens, Chris Pokorny of Dawgs By Nature writes about the return of Haden, and how that could impact Baltimore on the outside:
The Ravens' receivers did some damage against a Haden-less secondary in Week 4. Torrey Smith had 6 catches for 97 yards and 1 touchdown. He wasn't the big problem, though -- the guy that killed the Browns' chances of coming up with a stop was veteran Anquan Boldin, who pulled in 9 catches for 131 yards, both of which are season highs. With Browns CB Joe Hadenback in the fold now and ready to play in his fourth straight game, things are looking brighter for Cleveland. Who will Haden be matched up against, though?
Local Takes: Ravens
While many think the Browns have a shot, Bruce Raffel of Baltimore Beatdown writes that the Ravens talent should carry them to a convincing win:
The expectation of a complete game may be a stretch based on the issues this Ravens team has had in the past, be it the past years or even this season. However, a complete game for 60 minutes has rarely been this team's strength and just won't be needed to beat a 2-6 Browns team.
Many people see this game a lot closer than it should be and while the final score will probably not be a good indication of the contest, the Ravens should dominate and win.
Follow the Fun
Add these fine follows to your Twitter timeline:
Could Ravens Have Used Aqib Talib? sbn.to/TyStFH— Bruce Raffel (@BaltimoreBeatdo) November 2, 2012
#Browns announce moves we knew were coming: DT Ronnie Cameron signed to roster; DE Brian Sanford (knee) put on IR; DT Phil Taylor activated.— Nate Ulrich (@NateUlrichABJ) November 2, 2012
#Ravens rule DE Pernell McPhee (thigh) out for Sunday. Pro Bowl DT Haloti Ngata (knee/shoulder) is quesitonable and game-time decision.— Jeff Zrebiec (@jeffzrebiecsun) November 2, 2012
My first inclination is to say this one is going to get ugly, but the Ravens are only 3.5-point favorites. The Browns want to run the ball, and the Ravens have struggled at times in stopping the run. Cleveland can and will keep this one close at home, but Joe Flacco will eventually get the Browns with his deadly deep ball.
The pick: 17-16, Ravens
The Ravens opened as 3.5-point favorites on the road, and according to Oddsshark, it's gone up a half-point in some places.
The Ravens will return home to host the Raiders. The young Browns will hit their Bye Week.