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With a little help, the Baltimore Ravens can win the AFC North this week.
An easier task could be clinching a playoff spot, something the Ravens can do simply with a victory on Sunday when they host the Cleveland Browns.
The Ravens (10-3) lead the division by two games over Cincinnati and if they win Sunday and the Bengals lose at Indianapolis on Monday night, will be division champions for the second time in team history. Baltimore also won the division in 2003, the last time it made the playoffs.
Even if Baltimore loses to Cleveland (4-9), something that doesn’t happen very often, it can still clinch a playoff spot through a multitude of other scenarios.
“You’ve got to have a certain momentum going into the playoffs. I’m supremely confident that this team knows what it has to do over the next three weeks,” Baltimore coach Brian Billick said. “If we can come through that, everything that we want will be there for us in terms of positioning for the playoffs.”
Since leaving Cleveland for Baltimore after the 1995 season, the Ravens are 10-5 against the team that replaced them. They rallied from a 14-3, fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Browns 15-14 on Matt Stover’s 52-yard field goal with 20 seconds remaining on Sept. 24.
The Ravens have won six of their last seven games and are tied with Indianapolis for the second-best record in the AFC. Baltimore is 5-1 at M&T Bank Stadium this season and has won 15 of its last 19 home games in December.
Billick doesn’t want the Ravens to relax as the season draws to a close, even though they don’t play a team with a winning record in the final three games.
“I’ll hold them accountable to it, they’ll hold me accountable, and what’s best is I’ve seen them hold each other accountable to it in terms of preparation and focus,” he said.
As the Ravens continue to win, quarterback Steve McNair seems to grow more comfortable in the offense. He has completed 68.1 percent of his passes and thrown for eight touchdowns in his last seven games, and didn’t throw an interception in six of those contests.
McNair has thrown nine touchdowns passes and only one interception in his last five starts against the Browns, posting a 98.6 passer rating.
The Ravens beat Kansas City 20-10 on the road last Sunday, dealing a blow to another AFC team with playoff aspirations. Baltimore forced three turnovers and leads the NFL with a plus-16 turnover differential. Cleveland is tied for last with Tampa Bay and Detroit with a minus-12.
“Our defense is well-orchestrated. They’ve got a lot of pride in what they do,” Billick said. “They don’t like giving up plays.”
The Ravens are first in the NFL in total defense, allowing 268.1 yards per game. Baltimore has allowed a league-low 170 points and has held Cleveland to 14 points or less in 10 of their 15 all-time meetings.
The Browns, who have lost eight consecutive road games to division opponents, are trying to avoid a winless season against AFC North teams. They lost 27-7 to Pittsburgh on Dec. 7, dropping their division record to 0-5.
Cleveland was outrushed 303-18 by the Steelers and let Pittsburgh running back Willie Parker run for 223 yards, the fifth time since 2003 that the Browns allowed an opposing player to run for 200 yards. Two of those games were by Baltimore’s Jamal Lewis, including an NFL-record 295-yard game on Sept. 14, 2003.
“You can’t stop it and you can’t move it, you get beat,” Browns coach Romeo Crennel said. “They ran inside, ran outside, and we couldn’t tackle.”
The Browns are in danger of recording their fourth straight season with at least 10 losses. Since re-entering the league in 1999, Cleveland has had only one winning year, a 9-7 mark in 2002.
Despite rallying to beat Kansas City 31-28 in overtime two weeks ago, the Browns were unable to maintain any momentum from that game against Pittsburgh and finished with less than 300 yards of total offense for the 10th time in 13 games.
“I don’t know what word I’m looking for, lack of maturity, or I don’t know what it is,” Browns wide receiver Joe Jurevicius said. “But we’ve got to figure it out soon because I know with a lot of guys in this room, this doesn’t sit well.”
The Browns continue to have an unsettled situation at quarterback.
Charlie Frye, who injured his wrist in the win over the Chiefs, is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game. Derek Anderson, who rallied the team to victory two weeks ago and threw for 276 yards in his first NFL start against the Steelers, would start again if Frye is unable to play.