The Ravens must build on what they accomplished in Week 9.
As veteran linebacker Terrell Suggs reminded in the post-game locker room on Sunday, a win over Pittsburgh means nothing if the Ravens stub their toe against 0-9 Cleveland on Thursday night. Of course, that stubbed toe would feel more like an amputation against a team that hasn’t won a game since before last Christmas.
A win would not only give the Ravens a half-game lead in the AFC North entering the weekend, but they would also move back above .500 for the first time since mid-October. On the flip side, the Browns are a loss away from their worst start in franchise history, a dubious possibility in a nationally-televised game.
It’s time to go on the record as Baltimore tries to avenge a rare home loss to Cleveland last season and complete the season sweep in 2016. The Ravens lead the all-time regular-season series by a 26-9 mark and are 13-4 against the Browns at M&T Bank Stadium. Cleveland has lost 15 of the 17 games played in this series during the John Harbaugh era.
Below are five predictions for Thursday night:
1. Steve Smith will shine in prime time with his second touchdown reception of the year. Thursday marks the first night game of the season for the Ravens, meaning the 37-year-old wide receiver will be eager to prove to a national audience that he’s still playing at a high level despite last year’s devastating Achilles tendon tear. Mike Wallace has had a strong season, but Smith is still the one who really makes the passing game go, evident by how mightily the Ravens struggled without him last month. He’ll take advantage of the league’s 23rd-ranked pass defense to find the end zone.
2. The Ravens secondary will victimize Browns rookie Cody Kessler with two interceptions. The rookie third-round pick from USC has played surprisingly well in his first six NFL starts, throwing for five touchdowns and only one interception while posting a 96.1 passer rating. However, you have to wonder how he responds on a big stage against a defense playing at a high level. After dropping multiple interceptions against Ben Roethlisberger in Week 9, Baltimore will be motivated to catch the ball to add to its total of nine picks on the season.
3. Terrelle Pryor will continue his strong season for Cleveland with 75 yards receiving and a touchdown catch. The 6-foot-4 former quarterback bounced from team to team for a couple years before finding a home with the Browns. Pryor has emerged as a play-maker with 46 catches for 579 yards and four touchdown catches despite a carousel of quarterbacks playing for the Browns. The return of rookie first-rounder Corey Coleman from a broken hand gives Cleveland another matchup problem, which will help Kessler find his top receiver for the Browns’ lone touchdown of the night.
4. Baltimore will eclipse 100 yards rushing for the first time since Week 5. After so much hand-wringing about the running game before Marc Trestman’s firing, the Ravens have been even worse on the ground since his exit, averaging just 2.4 yards per carry over the last three games. With Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda not expected to play and rookie left tackle Ronnie Stanley struggling mightily in his return last week, it’s in the Ravens’ best interest to be able to run the ball and the Browns are giving up 4.6 yards per carry this season. This team must find a solid ground game to stay in the playoff hunt.
5. Joe Flacco and the offense will be steady but unspectacular in a 20-12 win that looks like a typical short-week game. These NFL Thursday games are a terrible product and this one involves the worst team in the league and another that hasn’t blown anyone out in two years, a combination that doesn’t create the highest expectations. We know the Ravens have been a mess offensively for quite some time, but the Browns rank at or near the bottom in multiple defensive categories. Improved third-down efficiency and two touchdowns shouldn’t be too much to ask if the offense is going to start showing improvement. The Ravens will be in control, but a late Cleveland score results in another one-possession final.