CLEVELAND — It was far from a perfect performance on a dreary day at Cleveland Browns Stadium on Sunday, but the Ravens did exactly what they were supposed to do.
They beat an inferior opponent on the road in a 24-10 win over the Browns.
Billy Cundiff’s two missed field goals will raise concerns and the Ravens still struggle to finish drives when they get inside the 5-yard line, but the Ravens handled their business on a day when the other three teams with which they’re tied in the AFC all won in a highly-competitive race for the No. 1 seed.
The formula was simple as we opined all week in breaking down what the Ravens needed to do to win in Cleveland: run the football against the league’s 29th-ranked ground defense. And run they did as Ray Rice collected a career-high 204 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries.
The Ravens ran a franchise-record 55 times, accumulating 290 rushing yards as the Browns showed no consistent ability to slow down the Baltimore ground attack.
“The physical nature of how we played on this kind of field in these conditions was the difference in the game,” coach John Harbaugh said. “I’m just proud of all our guys.”
For as much criticism as he garners seemingly every week, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron kept it simple and, more importantly, didn’t panic when the Browns threatened to make it a game midway through the third quarter. Following a Joe Flacco fumble and a 52-yard completion to running back Peyton Hillis that set up a Cleveland field goal to make it 10-3 with just under six minutes remaining in the third, it was easy to imagine the Ravens coming out throwing on their next possession, trying to do too much to make up for mistakes that had suddenly created a one-possession game in a game in which they were dominating statistically.
But they didn’t, instead handing the ball to Rice who ran off left tackle before cutting back to the right for a 67-yard sprint to the Cleveland 6. Two Ricky Williams runs later, the Ravens had a touchdown and a 17-3 lead.
“I think we had to get back to what was working,” Rice said. “What was working was the run game. When [Cameron] called that play, I just said, ‘You know what, it’s either now or never.’ We had to make the play right then and there. And then we’re up by two scores. That’s the difference. That was the turning point in the game.”
There was no thought of trying to outsmart the opposition or to get too cute when the Browns appeared to gain a sliver of momentum after their only score of the game. Instead, the Ravens simply dared the Cleveland defense to stop them again — and they couldn’t.
Game, set, match.
Defensive end Cory Redding said it best earlier in the week by saying the Ravens needed a win “by any means necessary” after the troubling perception of them playing down to the level of their competition after big victories this season. Baltimore finally put to rest the talk of letdowns and trap games by using a simple combination for victory.
A dominating defense that held the Browns to just 10 points and the aforementioned success on the ground.
As much as Cameron and Flacco enjoy throwing the football all over the field, the Ravens confirmed Sunday what we already knew about their offense. Giving the football to Rice — their most dynamic offensive player — as much as humanly possible generally nets very positive returns.
The Ravens have run the ball a combined 122 times over their last three games. With December upon us and the elements more likely to resemble what we saw in Cleveland, Baltimore appears to be finding its stride in the running game despite being ranked 26th in rushing offense entering Sunday.
They weren’t perfect in disposing of the hapless Browns on Sunday, but how they responded to their mistakes was most encouraging by following their game plan and continuing to dictate the tempo of the game.
As a result, the Ravens kept their postseason visions in sharp focus as they enter the final quarter of the season. All their goals are still within reach with only team on the remaining schedule holding a winning record — the fading Cincinnati Bengals in the regular-season finale.
Baltimore will now come home to face winless Indianapolis before another road trip to San Diego to take on the struggling Chargers in two weeks. They’ll need to continue to do what they were able to accomplish on Sunday.
Win the games they’re supposed to.
Visit the BuyAToyota.com Audio Vault to hear more from Ray Rice as well as John Harbaugh, Lardarius Webb, Terrell Suggs, Joe Flacco, Vonta Leach, and Pernell McPhee right here.