The AFC North champion Baltimore Ravens look to solidify their playoff positioning, and exact a little payback, when they take on the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. This will be a rematch from Week 4 when Cleveland inexplicably went into Baltimore and beat the Ravens 40-25.
Last Thursday, Lamar Jackson continued his MVP-caliber season by tying his season high with five touchdown passes in a 42-21 romp over the New York Jets. Jackson also broke the single-season rushing record for quarterbacks, surpassing Michael Vick. Baltimore's defense did its part by holding Le'Veon Bell to just 87 rushing yards while Sam Darnold went 18-for-32 for 218 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception.
With the win, the Ravens improved to 12-2, the best record in the NFL and ran their winning streak to 10 games. Baltimore can clinch a first-round bye with a victory on Sunday (or loss by Kansas City or New England) and also can sew up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs depending on what happens with the Patriots and Chiefs.
The Browns (6-8) were eliminated from playoff contention following last week's discouraging 38-24 road loss to an Arizona Cardinals team that entered the game with a 3-8 record. Jarvis Landry and head coach Freddie Kitchens had a heated verbal exchange in the fourth quarter that epitomizes the soap opera nature of Cleveland in 2019.
Offense wasn't really the issue for the Browns (393 yards, 25 first downs) against the Cardinals, but the defense gave up 445 yards, 226 of those on the ground, as Kenyan Drake (137 rushing yards, 4 TDs) and Kyler Murray (275 total yards) pretty much did whatever they wanted. Cleveland's really just playing out the string now and could be facing major changes in the offseason but the Browns also have a chance to sweep their division rivals. They were the last team to beat the Ravens, way back in Week 4.
Baltimore at Cleveland
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec.22 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Ravens -9.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Lamar Jackson vs. Baker Mayfield
This is a statistical mismatch as Jackson has outperformed Mayfield by a wide margin. Jackson also has benefitted from having a coaching staff that understands his skill set and designed the offense to highlight his strengths. Moreover, Jackson’s ability to get out of pocket and make plays with his legs is unmatched in the league, but it’s the overall improvement he has made throwing the football that has truly separated him from Mayfield and just about everyone else.
Jackson has completed 66.2 percent of his passes with 33 touchdowns and just six interceptions. Remember he finished last season by going 14-for-29 and getting sacked seven times in a playoff loss to the Chargers. His 2019 numbers are a testament to the commitment he made to his craft by prioritizing improvement in order to help his team compete for a Super Bowl.
On the other side, Mayfield has taken a big step back this season, completing 60.1 percent of his passes with the same number of touchdowns as interceptions (17 each). This coming just a year after setting a new NFL record for touchdown passes by a rookie (27, with only 14 INTs). Some of the regression can be attributed to an offensive line that has underachieved but Mayfield continues to make himself a lightning rod both on the field and off, as his overall visibility has increased thanks to the endless number of Progressive Insurance commercials. He also is not afraid or shy about speaking his mind to anyone at any time.
There could be major changes coming with the coaching staff and/or the roster this offseason, but Mayfield's not going anywhere. It's on him to work as hard as he possibly can to live up to the billing and expectations that come with the being the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, especially for a fan base like the Browns that desperately wants a winning team to cheer for.
2. Nick Chubb
Cleveland head coach Freddie Kitchens also is under plenty of scrutiny and deserves blame for how the Browns have underachieved this season. But one thing that has gone right for this team is Chubb. He leads the league in rushing (1,408 yards) and is the only player averaging more than 100 yards on the ground per game.
Chubb was a big reason why Cleveland beat Baltimore 40-25 back in Week 4, as he gashed the Ravens for a season-high 165 yards on 20 carries (8.3 ypc). He scored three times, including an 88-yard gallop in the fourth quarter that basically put the game away.
Baltimore's defensive numbers are solid, including ranking fifth against the run (96.1 ypg), but this unit also likes to take chances. That can lead to turnovers (22, tied for eighth in NFL) but big plays are there to be had as well, as Chubb demonstrated in the first meeting. It will be up to Kitchens to find ways to feed Chubb the ball early and often and resist the temptation to try and beat the Ravens by forcing the issue to Odell Beckham Jr. or Jarvis Landry in the passing game. A busy and productive Chubb also could mean fewer opportunities for Jackson and Baltimore's offense.
3. Baltimore's offensive line vs. Cleveland's defensive line
This battle will be critical for both teams as the Ravens' offensive line had some issues in dealing with the Browns' pass rush back in Week 4. Baltimore surrendered four sacks, as Cleveland's ability to get to Jackson eventually resulted in a couple of interceptions and three turnovers overall.
Things have changed since that game, however, as the Browns continue to be without Myles Garrett, who is currently suspended indefinitely for his helmet-swinging incident with Pittsburgh quarterback Mason Rudolph. Even though Garrett has now missed the past four games he still leads his team in sacks with 10. Larry Ogunjobi (who was suspended one game for his part in the fracas) is second with 5.5.
The Ravens need to take advantage of Garrett's absence and establish control of the line of scrimmage from the start. If Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards can get going early on the ground that will open up the entire offense for Jackson, whether he wants to get out on the edge or try and come up with the big play downfield via play-action passes to his wide receivers or tight ends.
Expect Baltimore to come out strong in the first quarter to try and deliver an early knockout punch to Cleveland. With no Myles Garrett to worry about, Lamar Jackson should have his way against the Browns and may even be able to take an early seat on the bench. Unless Cleveland comes out with some extra fire and shows some rare cohesion, this game will probably just serve as more evidence that the Browns need to shake things up in the offseason. Baltimore should win this game easily and get one step closer to securing home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Prediction: Ravens 41, Browns 20
— Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @ScottWhittum.