Hosting Cleveland has been the Ravens’ closest experience to a homecoming game for more than 15 years.
Owning a 13-3 all-time mark over the Browns in Baltimore and winning 13 of the last 14 meetings overall, the Ravens have appeared to barely break a sweat if you only look at the win-loss record. But the narrative has changed ever so slightly with five of the last seven games being decided by one possession.
In the 2014 regular-season finale at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens trailed Cleveland in the fourth quarter before scoring 17 points to send them to victory and their sixth trip to the playoffs in seven years. Now, both teams are fighting for their 2015 lives with matching 1-3 records and plenty of question marks on both sides of the ball.
It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens try to overcome injuries to Steve Smith and Crockett Gillmore to improve their all-time record to 25-8 over the Browns and climb back into the early AFC playoff race.
Here’s what to expect as the Ravens look to win their first game in Baltimore this season …
1. Justin Forsett will eclipse the 100-yard rushing mark for the second consecutive week. There’s a danger here of offensive coordinator Marc Trestman trying to outsmart himself as one could argue that the Ravens should come out throwing while Cleveland stacks the box trying to stop the run with Smith out. But why mess around when the Browns ranked last in the NFL in run defense last year and are 31st so far in 2015? Baltimore will use play-action fakes and Flacco will take shots here and there, but the Browns need to prove they can stop the run first and the Ravens will pound the ball until that happens. The offensive line play will pick up where it left off in Pittsburgh last week.
2. Browns running back Duke Johnson and tight end Gary Barnidge will combine to make 10 catches for 120 yards and a touchdown. Cleveland has allowed 14 sacks in four games this year and will be focused on stopping Elvis Dumervil coming off the edge, leading to lots of chips by Barnidge before quarterback Josh McCown checks down to him with short passes. The rookie Johnson has also proven to be an effective target out of the backfield, which could create issues for C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith. With the Ravens devoting safety attention to the big-play capability of Travis Benjamin, Browns tight ends and running backs will have more success in the passing game.
3. Darren Waller will catch the first touchdown of his NFL career. Anyone telling you they have a good idea how the passing game is going to shake out on Sunday is only guessing as you just don’t remove a talent like Smith from the equation without major adjustments needing to be made. Kamar Aiken will receive opportunities as the No. 1 guy, but his performances against Denver (one catch for minus-1 yard) and Cincinnati (zero catches) make it difficult to trust him. After making his first NFL reception on the Ravens’ game-tying drive at the end of regulation a week ago, the 6-foot-6 Waller will catch his first touchdown as Flacco throws him a pretty fade inside the red zone in the first half.
4. Brandon Williams and Timmy Jernigan will each collect their first sack of the 2015 season. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will try his best to move Dumervil away from Joe Thomas, but the Ravens need to continue to get inside pressure to minimize the glaring void left behind by Terrell Suggs. Za’Darius Smith provided the boost last week, but it will be Williams and Jernigan stepping up on Sunday. More of a run-stopping tackle, Williams has had a Pro Bowl-caliber season and has been the Ravens’ best defensive player in 2015. Meanwhile, Jernigan’s second season has been a disappointment so far as he’s fallen behind rookie Carl Davis and needs a strong performance against the Browns.
5. The better quarterback and the team with the home-field advantage will do enough to earn a 20-13 win. It’s unfair to expect too much from Joe Flacco when you look at the group of pass-catchers he’ll be throwing to on Sunday, but he needs to limit his mistakes, something he didn’t do in Pittsburgh last week. He won’t post gaudy numbers, but Flacco will play smarter football than McCown and the Baltimore defense will clamp down on a Cleveland offense short on playmakers in a sometimes-ugly, points-challenged contest. Neither team has shown many signs of being a good football team so far, but the Ravens own the edge playing at home in Week 5 and they’ll take advantage of it.