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The Baltimore Ravens find themselves in a familiar position this Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium at 4:25 pm as they enter a week 17 home divisional contest with a chance to clinch a playoff spot.
This year is a bit different from last season’s matchup with the Bengals as the Ravens will be able to win their first AFC North title since the 2012 Super Bowl season if they defeat the upstart 7-7-1 Cleveland Browns.
Once again, this past week the Ravens defense was absolutely dominant on Saturday night in Carson, CA holding the NFL’s 10th-ranked offense to just 198 total yards. But a familiar scene was playing out as the Ravens were clinging to a 16-10 lead with 2:54 left in the game and the Chargers driving when Patrick “Peanut” Onwuasor and Tavon Young combined for the biggest play of the night for the defense:
This touchdown made the score 22-10 and Marlon Humphrey put a stop to the final Los Angeles drive of the night with an interception in the end zone. Lamar Jackson and the Ravens offense rode their ball control formula in the first half (19:54- 7:56) but were only able to stake the Ravens to a 6-3 lead at the half.
The Chargers took the lead four plays into the second half as Kenneth Dixon fumbled on the first play of Baltimore’s opening drive and Melvin Gordon punched it in to give the Chargers a 10-6 lead. But the Ravens rookie offensive talents stepped up just two plays into the next Ravens drive as Jackson hit fellow rookie tight end Mark Andrews with arguably his prettiest pass of the season:
The Ravens didn’t look back from there despite the Chargers threatening. With some help on Sunday from the New Orleans Saints, who registered a 31-28 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens will win their fifth division title in franchise history with a victory on Sunday over the Browns.
Here’s what to watch for ahead of Sunday’s tilt.
1) Defensive dominance must continue
Since the bye week the Ravens are 5-1 and despite what you’re being told on a consistent basis about the offense’s involvement in this surge to the playoffs, the Ravens will go as far as the defense takes them.
Over the last six weeks, the Ravens defense has put up absurd numbers. 17 points-per-game allowed. 252.6 yards-per-game allowed. They have held five of their last six opponents to under 256 total yards. The only outlier in the last six games of dominance was the 442 yards allowed against the Kansas City Chiefs. This game included an overtime period as well.
The Ravens are forcing turnovers at a rate that we hadn’t seen prior to the bye week. They have seven turnovers in the last six weeks after coming up with just seven turnovers in the nine weeks before the bye. The defense also has three touchdowns since the bye week as well. Additionally, the defense has 15 sacks over the last six weeks.
Here are their overall rankings right now in the NFL on the defensive side of the ball:
Yards-per-game allowed: First (284.1)
Pass yards-per-game allowed: Fourth (198.9)
Rushing yards-per-game allowed: Third (85.1)
Points-per-game allowed: First (17.5)
Sacks: Tied for Sixth (43.0)
3rd Down Defense: Third (34.0%)
If it seems that the Ravens have ran into a top ten offensive unit in nearly every game since the bye week, that’s because they have in four of the six contests. They will miss a top ten offense this week as Baker Mayfield’s Browns come to town but the Ravens will need to be at their best defensively to win the division crown and end their three-year playoff drought.
2) About Baker Mayfield and that Browns offense
Other than the Ravens, it can be argued that the Cleveland Browns are the hottest team in the NFL. And no one has been hotter league wide the past six weeks than Mayfield.
The number one overall pick out of Oklahoma has been rumbling since Hue Jackson was let go prior to to the Browns 37-21 loss to the Chiefs in week nine. Since week 10 Mayfield and the Browns are 5-1 just like the Ravens. Mayfield has thrown for 263.5 yards-per-game with 14 touchdowns and four interceptions. He is completing 71.5% of his passes over the past six weeks.
Mayfield is on an incredible roll over the past six weeks and has gained steam in the Offensive Rookie of the Year conversation. Prior to Mayfield’s hot streak, the award appeared to destined to go to Giants rookie running back Saquon Barkley. As of right now the only winner of this award should be Mayfield, who with a win in Baltimore on Sunday, would give the Browns just their fourth winning record since 1990.
Oftentimes with a rookie quarterback, the formula would be to blitz the hell out of him but with Mayfield, that may not be the best way to shut him down. Consider this from last Sunday:
Yeah maybe the Ravens shouldn’t blitz the hell out of him. Mayfield has some decent weapons at his disposal but definitely not the likes of Melvin Gordon and Keenan Allen whom the Ravens were able to shut down last Saturday.
Wideout Jarvis Landry leads the Browns with 76 catches for 874 yards and three touchdowns. Tight end David Njoku is second on the club with 53 catches for 577 yards and four touch wins. Antonio Callaway, Rashard Higgins, and former Raven Breshad Perriman round out the pass-catching threats for the Browns.
Rookie running back Nick Chubb paces the Browns rushing attack with 972 yards and eight touchdowns on the season despite not taking the starting job until week seven. He will be looking to build on back-to-back 100-yard performances against the Bengals and the Broncos.
The defense will once again have their hands full with an offense that has been performing much better as of late.
3) What do the Ravens get from their offense?
The Ravens are 5-1 in their six games with Jackson under center as the starting quarterback.
Jackson has been the catalyst in the running game that we all expected him to be and has sprinkled in just enough in the passing game to help the Ravens turn their season around and find themselves back in the playoff hunt. Jackson is given the lionshare of the credit for the Ravens being able to control the time of possession the past few weeks as the run-heavy offense has kept the Ravens defense more rested.
Some are even beginning to discuss Jackson as a viable candidate to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award in the NFL.
Jackson has completed 58.2% of his passes as the starting quarterback which is good for 31st in the NFL. He has five touchdowns and three interceptions through the air. He is averaging a total of 233.5 yards-per-game (155.8 through the air and 77.7 on the ground). He has also pitched in two rushing touchdowns. Jackson has fumbled eight times in his six starts as well.
With that being said, if the Ravens defense plays a slightly below average game by their standards this Sunday against the Browns and gives up 21 points, I am not confident that the Ravens can score enough to win. Here’s why. Since taking over, the Ravens offense has scored a total of 20.5 points-per-game over the last six weeks which is roughly a touchdown less than what their last six opponents have surrendered on average.
The Browns surrender 24.4 points-per-game. That would put the Ravens at 17 points given their recent trend. Without a defensive or special teams score, or the benefit of another defensive masterpiece, the Ravens will need more from their offense this Sunday if they want to clinch the North and earn a home playoff game.
Here’s hoping Jackson delivers enough on offense to get the Ravens over the top.
Jake McDonnell: Ravens 27 Browns 24
Nolan McGraw: Ravens 23 Browns 20
Jay Stavros: Ravens 28 Browns 17
Ian Schultz: Ravens 21 Browns 17
I think that the Ravens are going to be able to make just enough plays on offense Sunday to give themselves a chance to win. With their home crowd behind them in what will hopefully be a raucous road environment for the Browns, the defense makes another critical play late and sends the Ravens to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
Image Credit: Baltimore Ravens