It's round one of two between hated AFC North rivals Cleveland and Baltimore. These two teams played very close games last year with the first meeting in October going to the Browns 12-9 in overtime and then two months later it was the Ravens winning 26-24. In that first contest in Cleveland, Baker Mayfield threw for more than 300 yards and outdueled Joe Flacco. Lamar Jackson was the big difference in the home tilt for the Ravens with 269 total yards (including 90 rushing) and two touchdowns (both on the ground).
The Browns are currently sitting 1-2 with a lot of criticism being hurled at head coach Freddie Kitchens for his play-calling and for Mayfield's lack of execution at the end. The preseason hype for this team failed to account for the first-year head coach who has shown early on to be overwhelmed by the moment at times. The other key for this matchup is the health of the secondary as all four starters missed last Sunday night's game against the Rams. The replacements played well last Sunday, but this is a whole new challenge.
Lamar Jackson is putting up some great numbers... for a running back. The signal-caller has done everything he can to help the Ravens although they came up short in Kansas City against the Chiefs. This team wants to run the ball, grind out possessions, and keep the ball as long as possible. The superstar names from the past aren't back on defense, but they are still a pretty formidable bunch who will be stressed by Cleveland.
Cleveland at Baltimore
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 29 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Ravens -7
Three Things to Watch
The biggest intangible for the Browns is how they will handle this bit of adversity. We've seen Odell Beckham Jr. crack a bit in the past when he started losing and didn't get the ball enough. Freddie Kitchens tried to shoulder a lot of the blame this week for what happened against the Rams, but he's going to have to keep this team together in the locker room. Baltimore has the Steelers next and while the Ravens hate Pittsburgh, they also probably have a healthy disdain for the Browns. It should be noted that the Ravens have covered just six of their last 18 home games.
2. Baking in Baltimore
Baker Mayfield has been under an intense microscope ever since the offseason when he became more vocal about things. Mayfield has struggled this season with the offensive structure and is coming off an 18-for-36 passing effort for 195 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Now I'm not ready to throw all the blame on him because as mentioned above, the play-calling has been poor and his offensive line has allowed him to be sacked 11 times already. Mayfield has thrown an INT in every contest and has just three touchdown passes. This number should be a lot higher with the talent he's got around him.
Baltimore's secondary can be exploited as evidenced by last week. Mayfield is not Patrick Mahomes, but there were lanes to throw the ball. The Ravens have given up 290.3 passing yards per game. Cleveland is going to have to invert their play-calling because Baltimore has held opponents to just 60.3 yards per game on the ground. Marlon Humphrey and Brandon Carr are your corners with Earl Thomas and Tony Jefferson patrolling the middle. There isn't a ton of depth at corner for the Ravens, so if the Browns utilize three- or four-WR sets they may be able to find some holes in coverage.
3. Quoth the Raven, "keep the ball"
The Ravens are averaging nearly 37 minutes of possession per game and because of that, they are wearing down defenses and finding offensive success. This is an almost five-minute increase over their TOP from last year. As a matter of fact, they are holding the ball over two minutes more than New England who is number two on the list. For comparison, Cleveland's time of possession is just over 30 minutes per game. Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards are forming a very solid duo in the backfield with the quarterback taking off when he needs to. Jackson has yet to throw an interception which also is contributing to Baltimore's ability to hold onto the ball. Myles Garrett (6.0 sacks, second in NFL) is going to have to wreak some havoc on the backfield so their offense can get the ball.
Through three games, I feel somewhat vindicated by being one of the people who didn't buy the Browns hype. It's all well and good to win the offseason, but that doesn't translate necessarily to the scoreboard. I just don't like Freddie Kitchens making the calls in a close game, which I think this will be. Cleveland has to get over the emotional home loss to the Rams because Baltimore has the talent to make this a runaway. Justin Tucker also is a huge weapon for the Ravens as he's basically automatic as a kicker. He comes up big in this win for the home team.
Prediction: Ravens 27, Browns 20
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.