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Sunday Night Football: Cleveland Browns vs. Baltimore Ravens Prediction and Preview

Sunday Night Football: Cleveland Browns vs. Baltimore Ravens Prediction and Preview

These AFC North rivals clash on Thanksgiving weekend with the division hanging in the balance

Last December, the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens combined for 89 points in an epic 47-42 offensive explosion. Lamar Jackson wrote a special chapter in Baltimore sports history by returning from the locker room, crippled by cramps to lead a game-winning field goal drive in the game's final minute. On the ground, both teams combined for nine rushing touchdowns, tying an NFL record set back in 1922.

Don't expect those fireworks this time around as both teams fight for control in the crowded AFC North. Baltimore and Cleveland have scored just 46 points combined the past two weeks as both injuries and illness have taken their toll.

Last week, Jackson couldn't muster any type of heroic performance; a non-COVID-19 ailment left him sidelined as the Ravens struggled to put away the lowly Chicago Bears 16-13. The Browns are in the same boat, quarterback Baker Mayfield dealing with shoulder, heel, and groin injuries as he struggles to stay on the field. A scoreless second half against the winless Detroit Lions put his team on the ropes, although a 13-10 victory left them hanging in this AFC North race at 6-5.

That leaves this matchup an early playoff game with all four AFC North teams bunched together. A Ravens win puts them in position for not only the division title but the top seed in the conference at 8-3; a Browns victory tightens up the race and strengthens their postseason credentials in a conference where 12 teams are sitting at .500 or better, including all four AFC North teams.

Can the Browns find a way to score with their quarterback a shell of himself? Or will Jackson be healthy enough to keep the Ravens in control of their own destiny?

Sunday Night Football: Cleveland (6-5) at Baltimore (7-3)

Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 28 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Ravens -3.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Will both starting quarterbacks be on the field? How healthy will they be?
It looks like Jackson is clearly on the mend after a bizarre sickness kept him from starting last week. Calling himself "120 percent" certain to play against the Browns, Jackson feels recovered from his third serious illness since the start of the 2020 season.

"I have no clue," he said about where and how he got sick. "I just got fatigued. I got some chills. I was out of it. But I'm good now. I'm feeling great."

The last time Jackson was held out of a game due to illness, in December 2020, he charged back from COVID-19 to lead the Ravens on a five-game winning streak. The first game back, against Dallas in Week 13, he threw for two touchdowns and ran for a third, so don't expect him to be conservative if he plays. Jackson's MVP-level talent is what an offense decimated by injuries needs after putting up just 16 points last week.

If he starts, expect the Browns defense, led by DE Myles Garrett, to blitz often and put the pressure on the Ravens' offensive line. Jackson replacement Tyler Huntley was sacked six times last week and, Jackson's been taken down 28 times this season, tied for the third-most in the NFL despite only playing nine games. The Browns' 29 sacks lead the AFC, so if Jackson is starting this game, he better have his typical mobility level.

Mayfield's status is far less clear. A groin injury suffered against the Lions is just the latest setback, leaving him an unexpected scratch from Wednesday's practice. Even a limited stint on Friday would leave him questionable for Sunday night's contest.

Should he be out there? Mayfield hasn't thrown for more than 300 yards since Oct. 10 as backup Case Keenum has seen significant action twice in the last five games. Just 10 touchdown passes have him on track for a career low; 27 sacks taken leave him tied for fifth most in the NFL. It's a scary set of numbers heading into back-to-back games against the Ravens (Cleveland plays them again after a Week 13 bye) that will make or break their 2021 season.

"Big-picture wise, everybody wants to act like the world is falling," Mayfield said this week. "No, we haven't played to our potential, and we know that more than anybody."

Even Mayfield's wife is fighting back against the critics, praising her husband's toughness in a deleted Instagram story this week. But actions on the field matter and making a heroic start is not always a guarantee of a successful one.

2. Can Nick Chubb carve up the Ravens rush defense?
As Mayfield's turned invisible, Chubb has caught fire, tearing up the field for 267 yards and two touchdowns in his last two starts. Despite missing three games due to injury, he's still third in the AFC with 851 rushing yards this season.

The question is whether Chubb can sustain this against a Ravens defense that's second in the NFL against the run. In the past six games, they've limited opponents to an average of 70 yards on the ground, allowing just one 100-yard rusher (Dalvin Cook) during that stretch.

In that Vikings game, quarterback Kirk Cousins was exceptional, spreading the field in a turnover-free, sack-free, two-touchdown performance. It's another reason the pressure is on Mayfield as the Ravens rank second to last in the NFL in passing defense.

3. Can Chase McLaughlin match Justin Tucker's dream season?
McLaughlin, in his first season kicking for the Browns, has looked shaky the past couple of weeks. He's made just four of his last seven field goals, missing three of his last four attempts from 40 yards or more.

In what's expected to be a low-scoring game, that makes a difference with Tucker sitting on the other sideline. It's been smooth sailing for the future Hall of Famer this season, making 20 of 22 kicks for the Ravens with a résumé that includes that NFL-record 66-yarder against the Lions. Tucker added another game-winner against the Vikings last month while making 73 of his last 74 extra points.

It's the type of consistency that shortens the field for the Ravens offense and makes three points a near certainty the second they cross midfield. Don't discount his impact here.

Final Analysis

The Ravens feel confident Jackson will play despite last week's late scratch. Assuming he does, that immediately elevates this offense over Mayfield. The Browns are in a tough spot, dealing with a starting QB desperate to prove himself for a long-term contract extension but who increasingly looks like he needs months to heal up.

That puts the pressure all on Chubb with neither Mayfield nor backup Case Keenum dependable enough. Unlike Jackson, the running back can't do it all by himself.

Prediction: Ravens 23, Browns 10

— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.