After an emotional come-from-behind victory to avenge last season’s AFC Championship loss, the Baltimore Ravens are once again looking like the top dogs in the AFC. However, they can’t look past the Cleveland Browns on Thursday night, even if their fellow rivals are 0-3. The Browns are likely headed into a steady rainfall over the Baltimore Harbor, which will need to factor into the gameplan.
As Midwestern storms flow East towards the Chesapeake, NFLWeather reports there is a 60% chance of rain with a likely scattered thunderstorms over Baltimore Thursday evening. Mix that with the humidity hovering around 74% and this will be an extremely muggy match-up. And to top it all off, a foggy, hazy fourth quarter with mild 5-10 mph winds from the west is being forecast.
Statistics alone do not favor the visiting Browns, with the Ravens having taken the previous eight meetings. However, the last two games have only been by a touchdown apart. It’s also been a while since Cleveland won a regular season game, over 300 days ago. Even harder to believe is that it’s been over a year since their last victory away from home, when a Peyton Manning-less Indianapolis Colts hosted Cleveland in mid-September.
Making matters worse, the rain has treated the Ravens well in recent years, especially at home. According to NFLWeather.com’s historical analysis, since 2009 the Baltimore Ravens are 5-0 at home when raining and 3-0 against Cleveland, which includes two victories at M&T Bank Stadium. Furthermore, the Browns were outscored in those three meetings by a 52-point margin. Baltimore hasn’t lost in it’s last 13 straight home games and has a nine game win streak over AFC North opponents.
The AFC North was a division dominated by stifling defenses ,but is evolving into a set of high octane offenses. In 2008 Baltimore took Delaware quarterback Joe Flacco and Rutgers running back Ray Rice and both are the foundation to an increasingly dangerous attack, having just outscored the New England Patriots’ juggernaut last week. The Ravens’ offense is fourth in the league in total yards per game (419.3).
Heading into Thursday, the Browns are pretty dinged up despite it being only week four. Tight end Alex Smith is still out with his head injury and joining him in street clothes is wide out Mohamed Massaquoi. On the positive side, Trent Richardson was a full participant Tuesday and Wednesday and is listed as probable meanwhile Josh Cribbs was limited in practice but listed as probable. Given all the standout injuries on the Cleveland offense, guys like Greg Little and Benjamin Watson will be called upon often in the driving rain. If the Browns are hoping to have any success against a speedy Ravens’ D, deception might be the main ingredient.
09/27/2012 08:20 PM
On the opposite sideline, the Ravens are all about the play action fake. Last week Joe Flacco had 39 passing attempts, 19 of which were following a fake handoff. Cleveland needs to mimic this game plan to slow down the speedy Baltimore linebackers and lingering safety Ed Reed. Establishing a consistent ground game is ideal but not always a given. However, a few solid early carries from Trent Richardson could set a tone. And heavy rains could force each side to focus on running the ball. Then, suddenly, one big play could be all it takes to keep Cleveland in the game. These are the opportunities the Browns will need to exploit.
With Joe Haden out, serving his suspension, the Ravens offense may try to take flight and likely do some serious damage in the air. A major reason for their aerial success has been the ground game anchored by a bruising Ray Rice. Last week against the Patriots was a perfect example of how the running game can completely open up the passing game. Flacco went 28 of 39 and threw for 382 yards and three touchdowns while Rice cruised for 101 yards on 20 carries and a score. Interestingly enough with a wide receiver corps that includes Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones, Flacco’s new favorite target has been tight end Dennis Pitta who has been targeted a team-high 30 times. Pitta has hauled in 18 grabs for 188 yards and two touchdowns, certainly making his presence known in the red zone. Regardless of who gets the looks, the Ravens offense be squaring off against the Browns, a consistently inconsistent defense.
As for the Browns, the defense they’ll be up against Thursday night is a watered down version of what it was a year ago. The Ravens defense went from third in yards allowed per game (288.9) to 27th (401.3) and a short week won’t help the defensive preparation aspect much, even if it is against a rookie quarterback. That being said, the Cleveland offense averages less than 300 yards per game and only 87.3 yards on the ground per game. If Brandon Weeden turns the ball over like he did in week one and three, the Browns don’t have a prayer. However, if he can make smart decisions and avoid losing the INT battle then maybe Cleveland can hang around into the fourth quarter.
A close game in bad weather could mean that special teams may be the difference. Phil Dawson has played over a decade in Cleveland’s lousy weather conditions. Conversely, Ravens’ rookie kicker Justin Tucker is a Texas grad and the kid has yet to experience the weather in this corner of the country. Both will be kicking off Baltimore’s slick artificial surface, Sportex Momentum 51.
Despite the passing of NFL legend Art Modell, little love is lost between these two storied franchises. A hard-nosed gritty style game in the rain between two fierce rivals is exactly what Moddell would have wanted. A thunderstorm on Thursday night couldn’t be any more fitting for any matchup from the AFC North.