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Even with long odds, Ravens still rolling shiny dice in January

Posted on 28 December 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — It had been a forgettable seven quarters of football for Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense.

Coming off one of the worst games of his career in the offensive meltdown in Houston, Flacco and the Ravens weren’t faring much better Sunday as they trailed 10-3 to the Cleveland Browns entering the fourth quarter. Knowing they were getting the necessary help from Kansas City to make the playoffs as the No. 6 seed, the Ravens needed to break through the thick fog that was threatening to wreck their season.

Even if it took an extra quarter to take effect, the message came loud and clear from their franchise quarterback at halftime.

“Joe stepped up at halftime when he talked to the team briefly,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “He just made a point, kept it simple and said, ‘Let’s just go win a game.’ That kind of summed it all up for us. Let’s go do what we have to do to win a football game.”

Win is what the Ravens did in a 20-10 final to punch their ticket to the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years. The performance wasn’t pretty and does little to quell concerns about an offense that continues to start games at a glacial pace.

But with it also came a reminder why Baltimore can’t be counted out in the postseason despite a banged-up offensive line, a recently-inconsistent running game, and a patchwork secondary. Few expect a long playoff run for the Ravens as they face the prospects of three straight road games just to make it to Super Bowl XLIX, but don’t tell that to their seventh-year quarterback.

After completing just 14 of 27 passes for 151 yards and a 68.6 passer rating through the first three quarters Sunday, Flacco went 8-for-9 for 161 yards, two touchdown passes, and a perfect 158.3 rating in the final 15 minutes as the Ravens scored 17 unanswered points to finish off the Browns. It was the kind of performance that reminds you how dangerous Flacco can be when he heats up, just like he did in his historic 2012 postseason that resulted in a Super Bowl title.

“Anything can happen once you get into the playoffs, but I don’t necessarily want to approach it [with that mindset] with us,” Flacco said. “I’m not going to be surprised if, three weeks from now, we’re sitting here and still playing. I think when I say anything can happen — or if I was to say that — that’s implying we don’t deserve to win any games in the playoffs.”

Of course, Flacco wasn’t alone in stepping up in the fourth quarter as Torrey Smith beat Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden to make a spectacular 53-yard reception to swing the momentum with just over eight minutes to go. The fourth-year wideout then reined in a 16-yard touchdown catch on the next play as the Ravens took a 13-10 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

The Ravens know they’ll need to rediscover their running game for a full four quarters and to lean on a potent pass rush when potentially facing the AFC’s top quarterbacks in January — starting with Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger on Saturday night — but any chance of a meaningful playoff run will begin and end with Flacco, who had the best regular season of his career despite the poor showing in Houston and the shaky beginning to Sunday’s game. The 29-year-old threw for 3,986 yards and 27 touchdowns this season, which were both career highs.

Even with long odds as the No. 6 seed, the Ravens know Flacco can be the lucky dice at the playoff table.

“When Joe is hot, he’s tough to handle,” Smith said. “And that’s on us at times to get him hot and our offensive line to do a great job protecting him. When you get him hot, we’ve seen what he can do. Hopefully, that last quarter, or whatever amount it was he got hot, hopefully that continues on.”

The comparisons to 2012 will be made by optimists this week as the 10-6 Ravens return to the playoffs after a one-year absence, but they won’t be afforded the luxury of a wild-card round home game like they enjoyed two years ago. Baltimore only won consecutive road contests once this season in topping New Orleans and Miami over a three-week stretch and would need three straight to make it to Arizona.

Only one of the Ravens’ 10 wins this season came against an opponent that finished the year with a winning record — Pittsburgh in Week 2. They were 1-6 against teams that finished the season above .500.

The health of left tackle Eugene Monroe will be closely monitored after he missed Sunday’s game with an ankle injury. It’s difficult envisioning the Ravens surviving very long without either starting tackle as Rick Wagner was lost for the season last week.

A band-aid secondary has played admirably over the last four weeks, but too much optimism would be fool’s gold after the Ravens faced the likes of Blake Bortles, Case Keenum, and Connor Shaw in December. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata’s return from suspension will provide a boost to an already-imposing defensive line, but the foot injury suffered by improving rookie Timmy Jernigan on Sunday could neutralize the overall impact.

On top of it all, the Ravens will travel to Pittsburgh, a place where they’re winless in three previous playoff trips with the most recent coming at the end of the 2010 season.

There are plenty of reasons not to like the Ravens’ chances in the 2014 postseason, but could Flacco’s awakening in the fourth quarter on Sunday be a sign of what’s to come in January?

“I have no idea. If we go win the Super Bowl, I guess it will be,” Flacco said. “The goal is not to make the playoffs. That’s the first part. That has to happen in order to achieve your goal. That’s really not the goal. I’ve been here through plenty of wins in the playoffs and then losses in the AFC championship game, losses in the division round, and believe me, people aren’t any happier just because you made the playoffs. It’s not a good feeling.

“Like I said, I think if we go do what we’re capable of doing then a game like this will mean something.”

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Ravens-Browns: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 28 December 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens will play their final game of the season at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday.

They’ll hope the regular-season finale against the Cleveland Browns won’t be their last time playing football until next season.

Needing a win as well as a San Diego loss to Kansas City to make the playoffs as the No. 6 seed, the 2014 Ravens are facing the prospects of becoming the first team in franchise history with double-digit wins to miss the postseason. Of course, they have no one to blame but themselves after a disappointing last-second home loss to the Chargers in Week 13 and after last week’s humbling 25-13 defeat to Houston that ripped away control of their path to the playoffs.

While the Ravens have no control over what happens between the Chargers and Chiefs, they will be facing a Cleveland Browns team that’s lost four straight and will be starting rookie quarterback Connor Shaw, who was just promoted from the practice squad. On top of the inexperience under center, the Browns suspended enigmatic wide receiver Josh Gordon for Sunday’s game due to a team violation, further hurting their chances of pulling off an upset.

Baltimore will be without starting left tackle Eugene Monroe, who is inactive while continuing to recover from an ankle injury suffered in Week 16. The Ravens are also without right tackle Rick Wagner (foot) after he was placed on injured reserve earlier in the week, meaning they will start rookie free agent James Hurst at left tackle and Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda at right tackle. Rookie fifth-rounder John Urschel will play Yanda’s regular position.

Despite missing practices all week, linebacker Terrell Suggs (back/thigh) is active and will start against Cleveland. However, veteran defensive end Chris Canty (ankle/thigh) will not play against the Browns after missing practice all week. Canty went through a pre-game workout two hours before kickoff and appeared to be favoring the ankle injury that’s limited him for a couple weeks.

Lawrence Guy and DeAngelo Tyson will likely see time in place of Canty at the 5-technique defensive end spot.

The Ravens will depend on Gino Gradkowski and Ryan Jensen as their only reserve offensive linemen in the regular-season finale. Gradkowski is active for the first time since Week 7 while Jensen is active for his first NFL game after spending the first 15 weeks of the regular season on the practice squad. Jensen was a 2013 sixth-round pick and was inactive for all 16 games of his rookie season.

Rookie wide receiver Michael Campanaro is active for the first time since injuring his hamstring on Oct. 26. The seventh-round selection has been a healthy scratch for a few weeks

Second-year linebacker Arthur Brown is active for just the fourth time all season.

The Ravens are meeting the Browns for the 32nd time in the regular season with Baltimore owning a 23-8 edge. Cleveland is just 3-12 playing at M&T Bank Stadium and hasn’t won in Baltimore since 2007. Under head coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens have won 12 of the last 13 games against the Browns.

Sunday’s referee will be Gene Steratore.

The Weather.com forecast for Sunday’s game calls for temperatures reaching the mid-50s with calm winds and a 25 percent chance of rain late in the second half.

The Ravens are wearing purple jerseys and white pants while Cleveland is donning white jerseys with white pants.

Below are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
OT Eugene Monroe
DE Chris Canty
S Brynden Trawick
CB Chris Greenwood
DE Steven Means
DT Terrence Cody
TE Phillip Supernaw

CLEVELAND
QB Brian Hoyer
CB Justin Gilbert
LS Charley Hughlett
C Ryan Seymour
DL Ahtyba Rubin
OL Andrew McDonald
WR Phil Bates

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Ravens-Browns: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 27 December 2014 by Luke Jones

(Editor’s note: The Browns announced that wide receiver Josh Gordon was suspended for a team violation after this post was published.)

Needing help in Week 17 is never a comfortable feeling, but it’s reality for the Ravens as they welcome the Cleveland Browns to town for the regular-season finale on Sunday.

Baltimore needs a win coupled with a Kansas City victory over San Diego to advance to the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years under head coach John Harbaugh. Should the Ravens win and not receive help from the Chiefs — who will be starting backup Chase Daniel in place of injured quarterback Alex Smith — it would be the first time in franchise history that they’d finish a year with double-digit wins and not make the postseason.

Of course, the Ravens wouldn’t trade their current predicament with the Browns, who are losers of four straight and are forced to start rookie free agent Connor Shaw due to Week 16 injuries suffered by Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel. While many in Baltimore are displeased by the possibility of the Ravens missing the playoffs for a second straight year, Cleveland needs a win just to complete its third non-losing season since 1999.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Browns meet for the 32nd time in regular-season history. Baltimore is 12-3 against Cleveland at M&T Bank Stadium and has won 12 of the last 13 over the Browns under Harbaugh. The Browns haven’t beaten the Ravens in Baltimore since 2007.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens hope to extend their season beyond Week 17 …

1. Torrey Smith will catch a touchdown in what could be his final game with the Ravens. The Browns own the league’s seventh-ranked pass defense, but top cornerback Joe Haden is questionable with a shoulder injury that limited him in practice all week. Meanwhile, Smith is facing the possibility of Sunday being his last game with Baltimore. It will be interesting to see what kind of market potentially develops for the 2011 second-round pick as he’s proven himself as a solid — and occasionally spectacular — No. 2 receiver, but the Ravens cannot and should not pay him as anything more than that. Regardless of what happens this offseason, Smith will catch his team-leading 11th touchdown of the 2014 campaign.

2. Browns wideout Josh Gordon will have his best game since his 2014 season debut in Week 12. Draw whatever conclusion you’d like, but Cleveland’s once-promising season crashed right around the time that the talented receiver returned from a lengthy suspension. There’s no doubting Gordon’s immense talent, but he hasn’t provided the shot in the arm the Browns needed as they’ve lost four of the five games in which he’s played. Gordon will have a chance to finish the season on a high note against the league’s 28th-ranked pass defense and even with Shaw under center, the 6-foot-3 receiver will eclipse 75 receiving yards and catch his first touchdown of the year, beating Rashaan Melvin in coverage.

3. Timmy Jernigan and Pernell McPhee will combine for three sacks against a vulnerable Browns interior line. All eyes will be on Elvis Dumervil and his quest to lead the league in sacks, but the Ravens should have few problems exploiting the interior portion of the Cleveland line as Nick McDonald is expected to start at center for the injured Ryan Seymour. The Browns have struggled inside since the loss of Pro Bowl center Alex Mack earlier in the year, and McPhee and Jernigan have had plenty of success as interior rushers in passing situations. While Cleveland will do whatever it can to contain Dumervil and Terrell Suggs off the edges, the Ravens will wreak havoc on the rookie Shaw with pressure right up the middle.

4. Justin Forsett will crack the century mark to complete one of the most surprising seasons in franchise history. The running game has suddenly become a concern over the last couple weeks, but the Browns are dead last in the NFL against the run, which will soften the blow of neither Eugene Monroe or Rick Wagner playing on Sunday. Even without his starting tackles to block for him, Forsett will take advantage of a front seven that will struggle to set the edge and will fail to protect cutback lanes, leading to a couple long runs. Forsett will join Jamal Lewis, Willis McGahee, and Ray Rice as the only running backs in franchise history to post a 1,200-yard season.

5. The Ravens will win 24-13 before learning they will miss the postseason after not receiving the necessary help from Kansas City. Sunday’s game will be one of those contests that’s closer than it should be, but the Browns’ inability to consistently move the ball will allow the Ravens to stay ahead until they put together a fourth-quarter drive to make it a two-score game. Unfortunately, the Chargers will continue their late-season mojo with a win over the Chiefs to clinch the No. 6 spot. Considering the adversity and injuries the Ravens experienced in 2014, a 10-win season looks good on paper, but the memory of late-season losses to San Diego and Houston will lead to the most offseason pressure Harbaugh has felt since coming to Baltimore.

 

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Monroe doubtful to play against Browns on Sunday

Posted on 26 December 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It’s appearing extremely likely that the Ravens will take the field against the Cleveland Browns in Week 17 without either of their starting offensive tackles as Eugene Monroe was designated as doubtful to play.

Monroe hasn’t practiced all week after suffering an ankle injury in the fourth quarter of the Week 16 loss to Houston. He has been wearing a protective boot on his foot this week, and there hadn’t been much optimism that he’d improve enough to play against Cleveland.

Rookie James Hurst would start at left tackle in place of Monroe after the undrafted free agent started four games at left tackle earlier this season after Monroe underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda would then slide to right tackle with rookie John Urschel assuming Yanda’s normal position.

Defensive end Chris Canty (ankle/thigh) and linebacker Terrell Suggs (back/thigh) are both listed as questionable for Sunday’s game after missing practice all week, but both veterans are still considered likely to play in Week 17.

Rookie running back Fitz Toussaint was also listed as questionable after being added to Friday’s injury report as a limited participant with a rib injury.

Meanwhile, Browns head coach Mike Pettine confirmed that rookie quarterback Connor Shaw will start against the Ravens. Veteran Brian Hoyer (right shoulder) is doubtful to play and rookie Johnny Manziel was placed on injured reserve earlier this week.

Cornerback Joe Haden (shoulder) was designated as questionable for Sunday’s game.

Another piece of injury-related news announced Friday wasn’t a good sign for the Ravens’ postseason hopes as the Kansas City Chiefs announced quarterback Alex Smith has a lacerated spleen and won’t play against San Diego on Sunday. Backup Chase Daniel will make his second NFL start in Smith’s place.

Of course, Baltimore needs a win over the Browns as well as the Chargers to lose to the Chiefs in order to make the playoffs as the final AFC wild card.

“I mean, we’ve still got a job to do,” said linebacker Daryl Smith when asked about the Chiefs-Chargers game. “That’s [beating] the Cleveland Browns Sunday. Regardless of what happens, we’ve got to do our job and try to win this game.”

The referee for Sunday’s game between Baltimore and Cleveland will be Gene Steratore.

According to Weather.com, the forecast for Sunday’s game in Baltimore calls for temperatures in the low 50s with a 40 percent chance of rain.

Below is Friday’s final injury report:

BALTIMORE
DOUBTFUL: T Eugene Monroe (ankle)
QUESTIONABLE: DE Chris Canty (ankle/thigh), LB Terrell Suggs (back/thigh), RB Fitzgerald Touissant (ribs)

CLEVELAND
OUT: DL Ahtyba Rubin (ankle), C Ryan Seymour (hamstring)
DOUBTFUL: QB Brian Hoyer (right shoulder/bicep)
QUESTIONABLE: TE Gary Barnidge (rib), DL Desmond Bryant (thumb), CB Joe Haden (shoulder), WR Andrew Hawkins (thumb), LB Jabaal Sheard (foot), TE Ryan Taylor (elbow) , CB K’Waun Williams (hamstring)
PROBABLE: WR Marlon Moore (knee)

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Only one scenario remains for Ravens to make playoffs

Posted on 23 December 2014 by Luke Jones

The Ravens already knew they needed a win over the Cleveland Browns in Week 17 to keep their playoff hopes alive, but one of their two remaining possibilities for help was thrown out on Monday night.

Baltimore would have clinched a playoff spot with a win on Sunday and Cincinnati losing its final two games, but the Bengals defeated the Denver Broncos on Monday night to officially clinch a playoff spot. They will play the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on Sunday night with the winner taking the AFC North crown.

Head coach John Harbaugh and the Ravens are still in the hunt, however, as they can punch their ticket to the postseason with a win and a Kansas City victory over the San Diego Chargers. At 9-6, the Ravens currently hold the same record as the Chargers, but San Diego’s Week 13 win in Baltimore serves as the tiebreaker.

Harbaugh’s younger brother Jim was unable to lead San Francisco to a win over the Chargers on Saturday, so the seventh-year head coach will now turn to his NFL mentor Andy Reid and the Chiefs for the necessary help to get into the playoffs. Harbaugh served as the special teams coordinator under Reid for eight years in Philadelphia before becoming the head man in Baltimore in 2008.

“Our emphasis is completely and squarely on the Cleveland Browns,” Harbaugh said. “That’s what we’re going to be doing. I’m sure they’ll flash the score up there; I’m sure we’ll see it. It’ll be a matter of [looking up], ‘OK, what’s the score?’ But we’re not going to be immersed in any other game. That’s a recipe for disaster.”

After the Orioles were swept by the Royals in the American League Championship Series in October, perhaps it’s in the stars for Kansas City to do Baltimore a favor by beating the Chargers on Sunday.

Otherwise, the Ravens will face the reality of having missed the playoffs for the second straight year.

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Two scenarios remain for Ravens to make playoffs

Posted on 21 December 2014 by Luke Jones

As many debate whether or not the Ravens deserve a playoff spot after their disappointing loss in Houston on Sunday, their postseason chances remain in decent shape despite now needing help to advance to January.

Two scenarios would land Baltimore in the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years under John Harbaugh, but both require a win over Cleveland next Sunday. The Browns lost their fourth straight game in a 17-13 final at Carolina in Week 16.

The first scenario that would give the Ravens a playoff spot would be two losses by Cincinnati to conclude the regular season. The Bengals host the Denver Broncos on Monday night before traveling to Pittsburgh next Sunday night in what amounts to an AFC North title game.

As strange as it sounds, the Ravens could be forced to root for the hated Steelers in order to receive the invitation to January. Pittsburgh officially punched its ticket to the postseason Sunday with a home win over Kansas City.

A second outcome that would land the Ravens in the playoffs would be San Diego losing at Kansas City next Sunday. The Chargers currently own the same 9-6 record as Baltimore, but their Week 13 win at M&T Bank Stadium gives them the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Again, both of these scenarios become moot points if the Ravens don’t handle their own business against the Browns.

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Issues with Tate, Blount show how lucky Ravens got with Forsett

Posted on 18 November 2014 by Luke Jones

(Updated: 1:30 p.m.)

A look at the current AFC North is a great reminder of how volatile the running back position can be and just how lucky the Ravens were signing veteran running back Justin Forsett to a one-year deal back in April.

The Cleveland Browns parted ways with Ben Tate Tuesday as he was growing increasingly unhappy splitting carries with rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell. After signing a two-year deal worth up to $6.2 million in a market particularly cool on running backs, Tate averaged just 3.1 yards per attempt and received only two carries in Sunday’s loss to Houston.

Tate’s recent remarks questioning his role followed by Browns head coach Mike Pettine’s response saying the two rookies had more pop and explosiveness made it clear that the relationship was rapidly deteriorating before the Browns officially waived the 26-year-old Tuesday morning.

Things weren’t much better in Pittsburgh for backup running back LeGarrette Blount, who was released a day after embarrassing himself on Monday night by turning his back on his team and going to the locker room before the Steelers had finished off their 27-24 win over Tennessee. Blount didn’t receive a carry against the Titans while surging starter Le’Veon Bell rushed for 204 yards on 33 carries.

Blount signed a two-year, $3.85 million contract with the Steelers this offseason, but he and Bell were arrested for marijuana possession in August and Blount was seeing his role diminish with Bell emerging as one of the top running backs in the NFL. The 27-year-old was averaging 4.1 yards per carry but has just 23 yards on 15 rushing attempts over his last three games.

Meanwhile, the Ravens keep chugging along with Forsett, who signed a one-year, $730,000 contract as an addition viewed strictly as an insurance policy for the troubled Ray Rice at the time. The 29-year-old now ranks seventh in the NFL in rushing and leads all running backs with a 5.4 yards per carry average.

“The role he has played is exactly the one I envisioned for him when he came in here. Saw it all along,” said Harbaugh as he chuckled following the Week 10 win over Tennessee in which Forsett ran for 112 yards and two touchdowns. “But he’s the kind of guy that deserves it. He’s the kind of guy that has had a really good career. When you watch him on tape, he has always been a playmaker, and now he’s getting an opportunity to prove that.”

By all accounts, Forsett has been a great teammate who was just thankful for the opportunity when it looked like his NFL career may have been circling the drain after an injury-riddled season in Jacksonville a year ago. Instead, he’s having a career season in helping the Ravens pick up the pieces left behind by the Rice saga and his positive attitude has made him easy to root for.

Tate and Blount were two talented backs many wanted the Ravens to sign last offseason and there’s no way of knowing if either would have worked out better in Baltimore, but it’s difficult to argue with the production Forsett has provided at a reduced rate.

Even if the Ravens couldn’t have expected anything close to it at the time.

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Ravens get some help in AFC North during bye week

Posted on 16 November 2014 by Luke Jones

As the Ravens were enjoying their bye this weekend, they could thank J.J. Watt for providing some help in their quest for an AFC North title.

Watt’s impressive performance on both sides of the ball led the Houston Texans to an impressive road win over the Cleveland Browns. The All-Pro defensive end and 2012 Defensive Player of the Year recorded a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, five tackles, and a first-quarter touchdown catch in the 23-7 final.

The loss knocked the 6-4 Browns out of first place as they’re now tied for second with Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Of course, the Steelers travel to Nashville to take on the Tennessee Titans Monday night.

While the Texans helped out the idle Ravens, the New Orleans Saints laid an egg at home in a 27-10 loss to Cincinnati, which propelled the 6-3-1 Bengals back into first place in the division. Dominated at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, the Saints lost their second straight home game after previously winning 20 in a row at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Considering how unpredictable the 4-6 Saints have been this year, it’s difficult trying to figure out which team will show up against the Ravens next Monday night. But you can bet head coach John Harbaugh will remind his team throughout the coming week that the Saints are no longer invincible at home as they had looked the last few years.

As for the rest of the AFC playoff landscape, the Kansas City Chiefs beat Seattle for their fifth straight victory, which leaves them tied with Denver for first place in the AFC West after the Broncos were beaten in St. Louis. At 7-3, the Chiefs are making a loud statement for a playoff spot for the second straight season as they currently hold the top wild-card spot in the conference.

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Who will prevail in the AFC North?

Posted on 14 November 2014 by Luke Jones

Halloween has come and gone, but that hasn’t prevented the AFC North from looking like something out of the twilight zone as the Ravens enjoy their bye this weekend.

Every team in the division is at least two games above .500, the first time that’s happened in the NFL since 1935. The Cleveland Browns — yes, those Cleveland Browns — are in first place in a year in which many talked about Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh battling for the top spot in a wide-open division.

Wide open indeed.

But who will prevail?

And just how strong is this division that’s gone 7-1-1 against the woeful NFC South but sports just one win — Pittsburgh’s 51-34 thrashing of Indianapolis — against winning teams outside the division?

Who will win the AFC North?

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Below is a look at each of the four teams and what lies ahead over the final seven weeks of the regular season:

CLEVELAND (6-3)
Division record: 2-2
Remaining schedule: Houston, at Atlanta, at Buffalo, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, at Carolina, at Baltimore
Skinny: On paper, this schedule doesn’t look too intimidating with four games against teams currently sporting non-winning records, but it also includes four out of seven on the road. The Browns deserve credit for the way they beat up the Bengals on the road in Week 10, but old habits die hard and it’s still difficult to believe they’re going to be the team left standing at the end of the season. These next three weeks are critical to the Browns’ chances as they face three very beatable opponents despite two coming on the road. If the Browns win at least two, they’re in decent shape entering a tough final month. Winning all three of those likely makes Cleveland the favorite to win the division entering the last four weeks.

CINCINNATI (5-3-1)
Division record: 2-1
Remaining schedule: at New Orleans, at Houston, at Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, at Cleveland, Denver, at Pittsburgh
Skinny: If it weren’t for their season sweep of the Ravens, the Bengals wouldn’t even be discussed as a playoff contender as their other three wins have come at home against Atlanta, Tennessee, and Jacksonville. If you’re head coach Marvin Lewis, the hope is that a healthy A.J. Green will provide the spark because Cincinnati has gone 2-3-1 since the first month of the season. Even if the Bengals have the most talented roster in the division, five of their remaining seven games are on the road and four come against teams sporting winning records. You never know in the unpredictable NFL where things can change quickly from week to week, but Cincinnati looks like the team least equipped to make a run to win the AFC North.

PITTSBURGH (6-4)
Division record: 2-2
Remaining schedule: at Tennessee, Bye, New Orleans, at Cincinnati, at Atlanta, Kansas City, Cincinnati
Skinny: There may not be a more bipolar team in the entire league as the Steelers own the best win (Indianapolis) and two of the three worst losses (Tampa Bay and the New York Jets) of any team in the division. Like the Ravens, they will benefit from having a late-season bye and the balance of three home and three away games over their final six. If Pittsburgh survives a trap game at Tennessee on Monday night, three of the remaining five games come against teams with winning records and two of those will be played at Heinz Field. Based on the remaining schedule, you might be inclined to label the Steelers the favorite of the four teams, but how can you fully trust a team that’s lost games to the 1-8 Buccaneers and the 2-8 Jets?

BALTIMORE (6-4)
Division record: 2-3
Remaining schedule: Bye, at New Orleans, San Diego, at Miami, Jacksonville, at Houston, Cleveland
Skinny: The Ravens should feel good about their remaining home schedule — even with two games against teams with winning records — but their road games against the Saints, the Dolphins, and the Texans won’t be easy for a team sporting just two wins away from M&T Bank Stadium. The Miami game on Dec. 7 might be the biggest of the year if Baltimore wants to be in good position to win the division or at least clinch a playoff spot when it hosts the Browns in the regular-season finale. Winning one of their three road games and winning out at home would get the Ravens to 10 wins, but John Harbaugh would feel a lot better with a 10-5 mark going into the finale against Cleveland than a 9-6 record with so-so division and conference records.

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Ravens staking claim as one of NFL’s best with fast start

Posted on 19 October 2014 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens staked their claim as the best team in the AFC North with a 29-7 win over the Atlanta Falcons Sunday to move into first place ahead of Cincinnati.

With their fourth 5-2 start in the last five years, the Ravens have put themselves in prime position to return to the playoffs as they approach the midway point of the 2014 season. But how much does that mean as we approach the final week of October?

“Meaningful in Week 7, so, it’s good to be there in that situation at this time,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “But you have to build on it, you have to keep getting better. We’re not a good enough team to do the things that we want to do right now, so we have to keep improving.”

Baltimore may not be a flawless team — there’s no such thing in the modern NFL — but it’s difficult to look at the numbers and not be impressed with what Harbaugh’s group has done through the first seven weeks of 2014. Even with 14 teams having played only six games at the end of business on Sunday, the Ravens have allowed the fewest points (104) and own the best point differential (plus 89) in the NFL.

Yes, they appear to have drawn the right year to play the woeful NFC South — a division where 3-3-1 Carolina currently sits in first place — but you can’t control which teams are on the schedule. The Ravens are not only beating the teams they’re supposed to beat, but they’re throttling them, which doesn’t often happen in the parity-driven NFL.

Already securing four wins of 20 or more points, the improved Ravens offense has received much of the attention, but the defense is taking major strides with its second straight game collecting five sacks, the first time that’s happened since the 2006 season. It was no surprising feat to limit the hapless Tampa Bay offense last week, but holding Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ third-ranked unit to just seven points was an impressive task.

With the pass rush coming alive and the play of the secondary stabilizing, the confidence on the defensive side of the ball is growing. Several defensive players spoke after the game about the speech linebackers coach Ted Monachino offered Saturday night, challenging a talented group of outside linebackers to raise its level of play to where it belongs.

It’s safe to say the message was received on Sunday as Ryan was hit nine times a week after Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon was hit 15 times.

“We’re dangerous, and we’re real serious. We’re coming out playing with an attitude,” said rush specialist Pernell McPhee, who added two more sacks on Sunday to continue his strong season. “Our [secondary] needs us, and I know we need them. I think [defensive coordinator] Dean Pees is doing a great job of calling the plays and setting us up to get the sacks. We’re just focusing in and trying to play ball.”

Much credit should go to Pees, who has shown various looks up front by moving around Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and McPhee to cause confusion while using a safety-by-committee approach in the secondary. Matt Elam and Darian Stewart started the game, but rookie Terrence Brooks and the returning Will Hill also saw extensive action at the safety position.

Former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan was known for bringing “organized chaos,” but Pees’ decision to substitute so frequently in the secondary reminded the 65-year-old coordinator of his college coaching days at Miami of Ohio when he used various personnel looks in a 1986 upset win over a top 10 LSU team in Baton Rouge. Of course, Baltimore didn’t face that kind of a talent disadvantage Sunday, but it illustrates the creative lengths used to help mask what’s been a deficiency of the defense to this point in the season.

Time will tell whether the safety rotation will continue, but the best weapon to neutralize a shaky secondary has been the major heat in the pocket. It’s also created more opportunities for turnovers as defensive backs got their hands on several Ryan passes despite not coming away with any interceptions.

“Those dudes are our best friends,” said cornerback Jimmy Smith about the pass rush. “They get in there, they disrupt things, they cause havoc, they make quarterbacks panic and throw the ball in the air. And on our end, we have to do a better job of coming up with some more turnovers. We’ve had a lot of opportunities, and we have a lot of drops.”

Unlike last season’s 8-8 team that remained static with issues on each side of the ball showing up on a weekly basis, these Ravens appear to be improving as the year progresses. Their only loss since Week 1 came on the road two weeks ago against Indianapolis, a team that’s won five straight games and only beat them by seven points at Lucas Oil Stadium.

It’s true that no one should confuse Tampa Bay or Atlanta for juggernauts, but the Ravens have a tremendous opportunity to not only seize commanding control of the AFC North but to make an emphatic claim as one of the best teams in the NFL if they can take care of business in trips to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh the next two weeks. It won’t be easy playing on the road against their two biggest rivals, but the Ravens have looked like the class of the division through seven weeks while the Bengals have gone 0-2-1 since their bye with two road losses of 26 or more points.

The Ravens continue to show improvement on both sides of the ball while stacking wins as they now have a chance to pay back Cincinnati for its Week 1 win in Baltimore.

“We have everything that we want to do right in front of us,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “We just have to go out there and continue to play well. We have a tough opponent next week that we didn’t play necessarily good against, at least for a half, in the first game. We have to come back out there and prove ourselves. They’re a good football team, and they’re going to be hungry, and we’re [playing] there. It’s going to be a tough test; I can’t wait for it.”

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