A win on Sunday and the Ravens are AFC North champs
The Baltimore Ravens are one win away from being a dangerous team in the postseason as they host the Cleveland Browns. Cleveland took the first meeting between these two back in Week 5, winning 12-9 in overtime at home. The Ravens sent the game into overtime when Justin Tucker made a field goal with 52 seconds left. This contest saw both Baker Mayfield and Joe Flacco put up good numbers, but also throw interceptions. The leading rushers in that game were Alex Collins (now on injured reserve) and Carlos Hyde (traded to Jacksonville two weeks later). It should be noted that Baltimore has won 15 of the last 19 at home in this series.
Cleveland's (7-7-1) faint playoff hopes were dashed last week despite the team winning its third in a row and fifth over a six-week span. Mayfield has been on point and is doing a lot of work with a wide receiving corps that has Jarvis Landry and a lot of question marks. The ground game also is contributing as Nick Chubb is seeing more work down the stretch. The Browns' defense also has been solid though it has faced a trio of struggling teams in Carolina, Denver and Cincinnati most recently.
Baltimore (9-6) is doing things a little differently compared to the rest of the NFL. The team made some news last week when it was announced that John Harbaugh will return for the 2019 season. To me, there shouldn't have been a doubt with that, but now it's official. Harbaugh is one of the best coaches year in and year out.
The Ravens have posted 35 or more rushing attempts in six straight contests, which is how many starts rookie Lamar Jackson has made at quarterback. While the ground game has been churning up yards (218.5 rushing ypg over last six games), the passing game hasn't been as productive (154.3 ypg). The defense has certainly done its part, holding five of the last six opponents While the rushing stats are up, the passing yards have gone down. The defense has certainly done its part during this stretch, holding opponents to 17.2 points per game.
Cleveland at Baltimore
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 30 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Ravens -6.5
Three Things to Watch
It's the last week of the season yet there are still some things that need to be considered. This is deja vu for the Ravens who were in the same position last year. They were eight-point favorites at home against the Bengals needing a win to get into the postseason. Four quarters later, Baltimore was sitting home and a bromance between the Bills fans and Andy Dalton was born. Now the Ravens are facing a Browns team that is arguably better than that Cincinnati squad was last year. This is a veteran unit so I don't think they'll fold under pressure this year. The Browns are going to try to win this game even if they've messed with their draft pick status. This is Cleveland's fourth road contest over the last six weeks while Baltimore is home for just the second time this month.
2. Rookie vs. rookie
Lamar Jackson has taken the league by storm. Jackson is averaging almost five yards per carry as a quarterback. He has run it 73 times in his last five starts. He joined Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III (now a Raven, third in the depth chart) as the only rookie quarterbacks who have rushed for at least 600 yards in a season. Jackson also is coming off a career-high 204 passing yards in the big 22-10 road win over the Chargers last Saturday. The 2016 Heisman Trophy winner hasn't thrown an interception since tossing two vs. Oakland more than a month ago.
Baker Mayfield threw for 342 yards in the win over the Ravens earlier this season. He's had just four interceptions the last five weeks with three of those coming in a 29-13 loss at Houston to begin the month. Mayfield's splits show that he's got a better completion percentage at home although not by much. The 2017 Heisman winner has 13 of his 24 touchdowns on the road, but also seven of his 11 interceptions. Jarvis Landry is the leading receiver with 76 catches with tight end David Njoku second (53). Antonio Callaway, Rashard Higgins and Breshad Perriman also are vying for targets, but are hard to rely on.
3. Getting down and dirty on defense.
The Browns' defense has finally been getting contributions from a lot of the players they drafted pretty high over the past few seasons. Myles Garrett has 43 tackles and 12.5 sacks on the year. He's becoming very hard to block and is getting support from the likes of Larry Ogunjobi and Emmanuel Ogbah. Ten different Cleveland players have sacks with 11 different guys accounting for the team's interceptions. Denzel Ward is becoming the top cornerback and has had some success against some of the best wide receivers in football.
Cleveland still has a ways to go before it reaches Baltimore's level on defense. The Ravens are No. 1 in the NFL in both total and scoring defense and getting contributions from all three levels. Za'Darius Smith is a name you may not be familiar with, but he leads the team with 8.5 sacks. There's a solid mix of veterans and youth that make up this side of the ball. Terrell Suggs has 32 tackles and seven sacks, but he means even more as the team's vocal leader. Tony Jefferson and Eric Weddle are solid safeties while Brandon Carr and Marlon Humphrey form a good duo at corner. Tavon Young only adds to the depth in the secondary.
Baltimore won't mess things up again in 2018 and they will grab the playoff spot that is hanging out there. This game will be close as Cleveland's momentum will help early on. Still, Lamar Jackson will bust off a huge run and it will change things as Baker Mayfield gets picked late. The Ravens become one of the most dangerous teams in the playoffs after Sunday.
Prediction: Ravens 24, Browns 17
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.