On Sunday AFC North rivals the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens will meet for the second time in six weeks, and there is nothing much to be gleaned for either team from re-visiting the first game.
That was on October 1, in Cleveland, and it was the low point of the Browns’ season, an embarrassing 28-3 loss, the outcome of which was virtually certain two hours prior to kickoff,, when Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson was scratched from the game with a sore shoulder.
Rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson was the emergency starter, and the ravenous Ravens’ defense feasted on the rookie quarterback, holding Cleveland to 73 net yards passing, with four sacks and three interceptions. The Browns were held to just 166 total yards.
Sunday in Baltimore, the two teams will meet for the second time this season and the Browns are in much better shape physically and competitively, having won three of their last four games, boosting their record to 5-3.
Watson is finally healthy again, and coming off his best performance in a Browns’ uniform, completing 19 of 30 passes for 219 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in a 27-0 shutout of Arizona.
But beating the Ravens in Baltimore will be the Browns’ biggest challenge of the season to date. Since 1999, when the Browns re-entered the NFL as an expansion team three years after the original franchise was moved to Baltimore, Cleveland’s record against the Ravens in Baltimore is 5-19.
The Browns’ vaunted defense, which ranks at or near the top of the league in many of the important defensive categories, will be severely tested by Baltimore’s high-powered offense, led by quarterback Lamar Jackson, who, with a league-leading 71.5 completion percentage, is playing at a level similar to his MVP year of 2019.
“Lamar is doing a great job spreading the ball around,” said Browns coach Kevin Stefanski. “He’s still always a threat to make off-schedule plays. He did that versus us in the first game. So they really challenge you on the perimeter.”
Browns defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz knows that better than anyone. Schwartz’s group has clearly been the most important reason why the Browns are 5-3, matching the records of AFC North competitors the Bengals and Steelers.
The Ravens, at 8-2, are threatening to run away with the rugged AFC North, although if the playoffs started today the entire division would be in the playoffs.
Sunday’s game between Baltimore and Cleveland will probably feel like a playoff game for both teams and their fans.
“They have a pretty good idea who we are and we have a pretty good idea who they are,” said Schwartz.
Even with an apparently healthy Watson ratcheting up the effectiveness of Cleveland’s offense, it will be the Browns’ defense that must do the heavy lifting in order to defeat the Ravens, and their high-powered offense.
In their 27-0 win over the Cardinals last Sunday the Browns’ defense held Arizona’s offense to just 58 yards of total offense. But those were the Cardinals. Sunday in Baltimore the Browns will run into one of the most explosive offenses in the league.
Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, a strong contender for the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, and his supporting cast will face their stiffest challenge of the season in the Ravens’ offense.
“In big games like this,” Schwartz said, “you need your big players to come up big.”
For the most part, Garrett and company have done exactly that, although through their first eight games the Browns have won and lost games by either very close margins, or by blowouts.
They have won by one point (39-38 over Indianapolis), by two points (19-17 over San Francisco), by 21 points (24-3 over Cincinnati), by 24 points (27-3 over Tennessee), and by 27 points (27-0 over Arizona).
They have also lost two games by four points (26-22 to Pittsburgh and 24-20 to Seattle), and one by 25 points (28-3 to Baltimore).
So there is no middle ground for the Browns so far this season. Win or lose, their games are either blowouts or nailbiters.