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Though hardly perfect, Ravens looking like early class of AFC North

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The Ravens weren’t about to feel sorry for their opponent’s quarterback situation, especially after finishing each of the last two seasons without superstar Lamar Jackson. 

But there’s no sense in sugarcoating the obvious that Cleveland was doomed upon realizing starter Deshaun Watson’s right shoulder wouldn’t allow him to play Sunday after all. Perhaps Dorian Thompson-Robinson — a preseason darling — will eventually develop into a solid backup and might have fared better with a game plan better designed for a fifth-round rookie with five career snaps under his belt, but the Browns’ decision to trade veteran backup Joshua Dobbs to Arizona in late August began looking like organizational malpractice by their second drive, which ended with cornerback Brandon Stephens intercepting a deflected pass and returning it 52 yards to set up the first touchdown of the game. 

That would be all the scoring Baltimore would need as the Browns managed only a 53-yard field goal late in the first quarter of a 28-3 final. 

Even dealing with multiple injuries, the Ravens defense had already shown it was a strong unit over the season’s first three weeks, and Mike Macdonald’s group overwhelmed Thompson-Robinson, intercepting three passes and sacking him four times. Baltimore shut down the Cleveland ground game until the Browns gained 71 of their 93 rushing yards in the fourth quarter when the outcome had already been determined. Led by star linebacker Roquan Smith, a stout defense did exactly what you want to see against an offense without its starting quarterback — or a capable backup — and four-time Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb, the Browns’ anchor who was lost for the season in Week 2. 

Despite going three-and-out three times and losing a fumble over their first five possessions, Jackson and the Ravens offense finally came alive with touchdown drives of 93 and 74 yards over the final five minutes of the second quarter. It hardly looked easy — especially with right tackle Morgan Moses exiting late in the first half with a shoulder injury — against a Browns defense with plenty of talent, but Jackson played mistake-free football after a botched handoff to Justice Hill in the second quarter and went 15-for-19 for 186 yards and two pretty touchdown passes to Mark Andrews. The Ravens offense played it safe in the second half, which was smart given Cleveland’s ineptitude on offense and the absence of both starting offensive tackles for Baltimore. 

Knowing victory wasn’t in doubt, Ravens fans could breathe a sigh of relief when a healthy Jackson — who also ran for two touchdowns — was replaced by backup Tyler Huntley and no longer subject to hits from Myles Garrett and the Cleveland pass rush with 4:34 to play. Few will view a 25-point win over a team starting a fifth-round rookie at quarterback as an eye-popping result, but the Ravens did what no other team in the AFC North could on Sunday — win. 

Despite a list of injuries that only grew Sunday, the Ravens improved to 3-1 — 2-0 in the division with two road wins — and moved into sole possession of first place. Meanwhile, the rest of the AFC North appears to be in trouble. 

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Even if the hype surrounding their defense might have been a bit much, the Browns still look like a team that could be pretty good if Watson’s right shoulder proves OK after their Week 5 bye, but the CBS telecast mentioned concerns about his rotator cuff and the potential for long-term concern. Based on what we watched Sunday, Cleveland has no chance if that proves to be the case. 

Losing 30-6 in Houston on Sunday, Pittsburgh lost quarterback Kenny Pickett to a knee injury, and its offense has looked mostly awful with him. Say what you will about Greg Roman, but Steelers offensive coordinator and former Maryland interim head coach Matt Canada makes the former Ravens play-caller look like Bill Walsh. We’ll see whether Canada is still calling plays or Mitchell Trubisky is starting at quarterback by the time Baltimore travels to Pittsburgh next weekend, but the 2-2 Steelers aren’t feeling good about themselves right now. 

And there’s no longer dismissing two-time defending AFC North champion Cincinnati looking like an absolute mess at 1-3. Whether it’s Joe Burrow’s lack of mobility with a lingering calf injury or opponents figuring out Zac Taylor’s offense, the Bengals have now failed to score a touchdown twice and have eclipsed 19 points just once in four games. It’s getting late early for Cincinnati, who will now face three 2022 playoff teams — Seattle, San Francisco, and Buffalo — over the next four games. 

Yes, the Ravens’ early-season injuries have been frustrating and cannot continue at this rate if they want to do anything special this season. The offense remains a work in progress under new coordinator Todd Monken with Jackson acknowledging that much after the game.  

But the defense has played at a high level even without top cornerback Marlon Humphrey and free safety Marcus Williams, and the addition of veteran Kyle Van Noy paid immediate dividends at an outside linebacker position in need. Most importantly, Jackson is healthy and played good football on Sunday, something no other AFC North team could say about its quarterback. 

Even if you’re not ready to rank the Ravens among the NFL’s elite, John Harbaugh’s team is looking like the early class of the AFC North with the other three teams in disarray. There’s a long way to go, but you’ll gladly take that spot in early October. 

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