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Opinion: Ravens and Browns each entered season with great expectations, only one is on track thanks to ability to win ugly

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  • Baltimore Ravens
    Baltimore Ravens
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
  • Cleveland Browns
    Cleveland Browns
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
  • Baker Mayfield
    Baker Mayfield
    American football quarterback
  • Lamar Jackson
    Lamar Jackson
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|

BALTIMORE — Two weeks shy of the one-year anniversary of the barn-burner that saw them combine for 89 points while delivering an instant classic showdown, the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns met again in another contest carrying massive implications for both teams, their division and conference.

But this time around, the points did not flow freely. There were no legendary heroics from quarterbacks Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield. Instead, the AFC North foes slugged it out at M&T Bank Stadium in a defensive struggle that saw Baltimore prevail 16-10 thanks in part to a fourth-down stand with 58 seconds left on the clock.

A career-worst four-interception outing left Jackson incensed. But a hot spurt from tight end Mark Andrews, who got open during a scramble drill to catch his lone touchdown pass in the third quarter (also the difference-maker on the scoreboard) and the ferocious performance by his defense, which bottled up the Browns’ usually dominant rushing attack and battered Mayfield, left Jackson relieved and optimistic.

Meanwhile, an inability to capitalize on four takeaways, ineffectiveness especially on third downs, and another divisional loss continued a frustrating campaign for Mayfield, his teammates and coaches.

As Week 12 of the NFL regular season draws to a close, the 8-3 Ravens remain perched atop the AFC North, and also moved into the top seed in the conference, meaning they control their destiny as they pursue home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Browns fell to 6-6 and have slid back even further in the hunt for a wild-card playoff berth. Stuck in the thick of a second-tier pack that features five teams with similar records, the Browns have only the slimmest margin for error the rest of the way.

The Ravens and Browns each entered this season with lofty expectations after 2020 campaigns marked by growth seemingly foretold additional strides on the horizon of 2021.

But both teams have encountered more challenges and obstacles than anticipated, and both have yet to achieve that coveted level of dominance. Yet, as November makes way for December, the rivals find themselves trending in opposite directions.

The Ravens have certainly recorded some authoritative victories. They also have experienced their fair share of flawed outings, as has every team in the league this season. But Baltimore has, however, repeatedly found a way to win ugly, which is a big reason why John Harbaugh’s squad leads the conference.

The Browns, meanwhile, have struggled to pull out wins on those days where things are just a bit off, and that inability to overcome their shortcomings is reflected in their .500 record and spot outside of the coveted top seven seeds.

Sunday served as another reminder of the differences in the two teams, and the game provided an illustration of how Baltimore’s strength is Cleveland’s weakness.

Coincidence?

Nope.

These teams have a lot of similarities. Both boast punishing rushing attacks. Both boast tough, physical defenses. But the parallels diverge from there.

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Despite four interceptions, Lamar Jackson still made enough plays to help the Ravens defeat the Browns.
Despite four interceptions, Lamar Jackson still made enough plays to help the Ravens defeat the Browns.

The Ravens and Browns might both be led by quarterbacks selected in the 2018 draft. (Mayfield went first overall. Jackson was the last pick of the first round.)

But while Mayfield’s time in Cleveland has been marked by instability (he’s on his third coach and fourth offensive coordinator), Jackson is the beneficiary of continuity and stability.

Mayfield has always had to fit into a system in Cleveland. Jackson, meanwhile, is Baltimore’s system.

Mayfield needs a lot around him to go right for him to play up to his highest potential. Jackson, meanwhile, possesses that make-something-out-of-nothing magic, even on days where he’s not at his sharpest.

Taking a cue from their quarterbacks, the Ravens have displayed an ability to counter punch. The Browns, meanwhile, still are trying to develop that skill.

Sunday proved no different.

Jackson, rusty after missing most of last week’s practices and last week’s game against Chicago with illness, wasn’t at his best as a passer (20-for-32 for 165 yards, a touchdown, four interceptions and a 46.5 passer rating). He never found a sustained rhythm. He did, however, have his legs and paced Baltimore with 68 yards on 17 carries.

Mayfield started the game with a good rhythm, but the Ravens started getting to him, sacking him three times, hitting him five times and hurrying him another half dozen times. He completed just 18 of 37 attempts for 247 yards, a touchdown and posted a 79.4 passer rating and fumbled once. The problem was Mayfield was all the Browns had because the Ravens succeeded at neutralizing Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.

Baltimore displayed a grit and resilience that paved the way for victory, which is no easy feat when your best player is not himself. But Jackson’s coach and teammates say that despite his struggles, he continued to carry himself with the same contagious confidence that he exhibits on his best days.

“It was just a really challenging circumstance. But nobody got flustered, and it starts with Lamar,” Harbaugh gushed. “Lamar is a guy who makes so many plays for us, and of course, he’s quarterback. The interceptions ... One of them was tipped, whatever, but he wants those plays back. He’s mad about them. He’s a massive competitor, yet he doesn’t let it take control of him. ... He’s able to push it aside, and he’s able to play the next series and give you great football. It’s really a rare trait.”

Said cornerback Marlon Humphrey: “I think it’s pretty obvious that he’s done some special things [and] won us a lot of games, sometimes, almost by himself. But the best quarterbacks … If you look at the Top 5 quarterbacks in the league, no one has a great game every time. So, for us to pick him up, it was just special – and to end the game on defense. We put up enough points anyway, with (kicker Justin Tucker). And (defensive coordinator Don Martindale) talks about, ‘Protect each other,’ and I felt like that’s kind of what we did today.”

The Browns couldn’t say the same. Mayfield lamented the fact that he and the offense couldn’t capitalize on the gifts given by their defense. Coach Kevin Stefanski and his quarterback found themselves still searching for answers after their unit failed to score 14 points for a third straight game and fourth time in five outings.

“Very frustrating,” Mayfield said. “To me, that’s kind of the story of our season so far. As far as not being able to play complementary football to our defense, the defense I thought played great. And when you play an offense like that as talented as they are with Lamar, I mean he’s running around making plays and our defense is right with him. Our offense needs to make more plays -- it’s really as simple as that. We need to play complementary football down the stretch if we want to have a chance.”

The Ravens are doing enough to get by on many days, but to ready themselves for the playoffs over the next five weeks, they have to find a way to play with greater consistency rather than having to continually come from behind to pull off wins.

Cleveland, because of how crowded the AFC playoff hopeful pack is, still has hope. But time is running out. To have a chance to emerge from the crowd and reach the postseason, they’re going to have to find a way to develop that knack for winning ugly as the Ravens have.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Baltimore Ravens, not Cleveland Browns, show ability to win ugly