With just two games remaining the regular season and the Ravens having already locked up a spot on the playoffs for the fourth straight year, it’s difficult not to look at the big picture, especially with the 4-10 Browns coming to town.
Three weeks after the Ravens rushed for 290 yards in a 24-10 victory in rainy Cleveland, they welcome the Browns to M&T Bank Stadium for the final home game of the regular season. The Browns have lost seven of their last eight games and haven’t won on the road since a Week 2 victory over Indianapolis in September.
With a win, the Ravens would complete their first undefeated season at home in the 16-year history of the franchise. However, Baltimore hopes it won’t be the final game of the season at M&T Bank Stadium as it needs to win the final two contests of the regular season to secure the AFC North title and a first-round bye.
With Houston falling to the Colts on Thursday night, the Ravens can not only clinch the division title with a win and a Pittsburgh loss to the St. Louis Rams, but they would own no worse than the No. 2 seed regardless of what happens in the final week of the season.
Here’s what to expect when the Ravens welcome the Browns to town on Christmas Eve …
1. Seneca Wallace will fare better than Colt McCoy a few weeks ago, but not by much. This season, the Browns found themselves in the unenviable position of trying to evaluate a second-year quarterback instead of playing a backup that arguably provided them a better chance to win in the present. The ninth-year veteran Wallace will receive the start as McCoy continues to deal with the effects of a concussion, and you get the sense that the Baltimore defense has more respect — and concern — for Wallace’s experience and mobility in the pocket. McCoy had 192 passing yards on 35 passing attempts with one touchdown and one interception against the Ravens three weeks ago, but much of that production came when the game was already out of hand. Wallace has a career 84.4 quarterback rating with 30 touchdowns to 16 interceptions in his career, but the Browns lack the weapons to really provide a threat to the Ravens in Baltimore. Cleveland will try to establish the run with bruising back Peyton Hillis, but will have no choice but to eventually put the game in Wallace’s hands. He’ll find some moderate success — he and rookie Greg Little connected five times for 131 yards and a touchdown in Arizona last week — but 200 yards or so will not be enough to make a dramatic difference in the game.
2. Ray Rice won’t eclipse the 200-yard mark again, but he’ll surpass the century mark on the ground. The star running back and the Ravens said all the right things about seeing improvement in the Cleveland run defense, but the comments were more courtesies than truths. The Browns gave up 147 rushing yards to the Steelers one week after their loss to Baltimore, and while they surrendered only 74 rushing yards to the Cardinals last week, that total was skewed by Arizona’s 289 passing yards against Cleveland’s third-ranked pass defense. Rice ran for a career-high 204 yards against the Browns at the beginning of the month and will see plenty of running room against their front seven. However, a sizable lead and an effort to keep Rice fresh for a big challenge in Cincinnati next week will give some of his carries to backup Ricky Williams. Rice will collect 125 rushing yards while Williams will gain upwards of 50 yards against the 31st-ranked run defense in the NFL.
3. With Anquan Boldin on the shelf, the Ravens will make a point to target Lee Evans often. Baltimore wouldn’t figure to struggle too much against the Browns, but quarterback Joe Flacco would benefit by using this game to establish more of a rapport with the 30-year-old Evans, who has been a severe disappointment after the Ravens acquired him for a fourth-round pick in August. Evans will start in Boldin’s place, and the Ravens would feel a lot better about next week’s game against the Bengals if he can look more like the type of receiver they envisioned at the beginning of the season. Baltimore will use tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta as wide receivers like they did when Evans was absent earlier in the season, but the Ravens really need to see more production from the former Buffalo receiver to prevent rookie Torrey Smith from receiving bracketed coverage until Boldin returns. Evans will need to create separation as Browns cornerback Joe Haden will likely be locked on Smith on the other side most of the afternoon.