With the Ravens beginning a stretch of four AFC North games in five weeks against Cleveland on Sunday night, below are a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less, as well as a score prediction:
1. Depending on other results, Baltimore could conclude Week 12 sitting atop the AFC or no longer holding the division lead. The up-and-down Browns are currently tied for 11th in the conference. The Ravens are in better position, but both teams need to pick it up to fulfill their goals.
2. Lamar Jackson hasn’t played in a game in over two weeks and hadn’t been playing his best football since the huge comeback win over Indianapolis. I’d like to see Greg Roman call a couple designed runs and use quicker tempo to get the star quarterback going early in this one.
3. Though not carrying an injury designation after practicing fully by week’s end, Baker Mayfield looks like someone whose injuries are becoming too much to overcome. After seeing Andy Dalton spark Chicago against the Ravens last Sunday, you wonder if Case Keenum would be the better option at this point.
4. Baltimore ranks 12th in yards per carry allowed and sixth in run defense efficiency, but Cleveland’s wide zone is the best rushing attack in football with Nick Chubb, a tough offensive line, and a returning Kareem Hunt adding a receiving element. A slow start plays right into the Browns’ hands.
5. If you ranked the opponents you’d least like to play without Calais Campbell, the run-heavy Browns top the list. John Harbaugh said Campbell’s progress has been “encouraging” despite his inability to practice all week, but his availability could be a deciding factor. A returning Brandon Williams would help at least.
6. Myles Garrett is a colossal problem wherever he lines up, but the Ravens must offer Alejandro Villanueva as much help as possible. Thoughts of Garrett and Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt had to make you shudder watching Villanueva struggle to the degree he did against Chicago’s Robert Quinn last week.
7. The Cleveland passing game is moving in the wrong direction and lacks high-impact wide receivers, but the current state of health in the Baltimore secondary and the big plays made by Miami and Chicago don’t exactly inspire confidence. How the Ravens handle the Browns’ tight ends is a major factor.
8. Though ranking seventh in yards per carry allowed, the Browns run defense was gashed the last two weeks and ranks just 17th in efficiency. Even if it takes 20 Jackson carries to do it, Baltimore needs to be able to sustain drives and keep Cleveland’s ground game on the sideline.
9. We’ve repeatedly talked about missed tackles and busted coverages with injuries only telling part of the story. Considering what Cleveland does best offensively, the Ravens will need a better version of Chuck Clark. His strong start to 2021 has gone the other way over the last five weeks.
10. How the Ravens handle snaps and personnel groupings moving forward will be interesting with Nick Boyle back and Patrick Ricard having played much more during his absence, but Ricard logged only one limited practice this week due to hip and foot issues. That’s something to watch for Sunday night.
11. A healthy Pernell McPhee is the kind of guy you miss setting the edge in this matchup, so it’ll be interesting to see if a returning Malik Harrison or Jaylon Freguson can offer useful snaps behind Tyus Bowser, Odafe Oweh, and Justin Houston. Harrison’s future could be playing the edge.
12. The Ravens will welcome Marshal Yanda back to the stadium as the Legend of the Game for the first time since his retirement following the 2019 season. And to answer the many questions received on Twitter, no, he’s in no shape to play guard Sunday night.
Prediction: Having already banked seven wins to lead the AFC North, the battle-tested Ravens are in good position from a mathematical standpoint, but they’ve gone 2-2 with a minus-30 point differential since their dominant win over the Chargers that many hoped would be the springboard to a 2019-like run. Meanwhile, the Browns went from blowing out the Bengals in Cincinnati to getting destroyed by New England in back-to-back games earlier this month. In other words, anyone claiming to have a strong feel for what’s going to happen Sunday night is lying. The Browns getting healthy while the Ravens again having a long list of ailments has to be a concern, especially with Campbell’s uncertain status on the defensive line. Baltimore giving up a 20-plus-yard play once every 11.1 defensive snaps is the NFL’s worst rate and threatens to derail efforts to contain the Cleveland rushing attack, but I’ll trust the superior quarterback on his home field in a pivotal AFC North matchup. The Ravens prevail 23-20 to begin their stretch of seven straight games against opponents currently holding winning records and send the Browns into their bye week with their playoff hopes in dire straits.