A Week 1 that felt uncertain and at times unlikely over the offseason is finally upon as the Ravens host the Cleveland Browns to kick off their 25th season in Baltimore.
The popular perception is Super Bowl or bust for John Harbaugh’s team after last season’s 14-2 record and early playoff exit, but the unknown applies more than ever after the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the in-person offseason workout program as well as the preseason schedule. That poses an early-season challenge to even the most stable organizations, let alone teams like the Browns with new coaching staffs.
We’re about to find out what that looks like.
“There’s definitely more uncertainty. It’s self-evident I think that there’s more uncertainty from a football standpoint,” said Harbaugh, who believes the ramp-up period in early August eases injury concerns. “Just going to have to go out there and play. I want to get out there and play and see where we’re at. That’s going to be an unknown until we start playing. Until we start kicking and throwing and punting and passing and tackling, we’re not going to know for sure.”
It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Browns meet for the 43rd time in the regular season with Baltimore holding a massive 31-11 advantage and a 20-4 mark in the Harbaugh era. The teams have split the season series in each of the last two years.
Below are five predictions for Sunday:
1. Lamar Jackson will pass for two touchdowns and run for another against a banged-up Cleveland defense. Expecting a perfect passer rating and five touchdown passes like in the 2019 opener would be a bit much, but the Browns will be without two of their top three cornerbacks — Greedy Williams and Kevin Johnson — and outside linebacker Mack Wilson after already losing rookie safety Grant Delpit last month. When you combine that with no preseason games, slowing down the dual-threat Jackson won’t be easy, even if he needs a little time to knock off the live-game rust.
2. The Ravens will hold Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt under 100 rushing yards total. Baltimore is in the same boat as Cleveland in terms of trying to slow a potent rushing attack, but Baker Mayfield poses little threat to run compared to Jackson. The quality of tackling for both teams figures to be tested early and often, but one of the primary objectives of the offseason for general manager Eric DeCosta was revamping the front seven to better stop the run. The Ravens will reap the rewards of those efforts before the Browns fall behind and largely abandon the run in the second half.
3. Jarvis Landry will continue his recent success against Baltimore with a touchdown and 75 receiving yards. The slot receiver had a combined 15 catches for 241 yards in the two games against the Ravens last year, making him a big challenge for returning cornerback Tavon Young. Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski is a big proponent of play-action passing, which should make Landry and new tight end Austin Hooper — a big test for rookie inside linebacker Patrick Queen — prominent targets over the middle of the field for Mayfield when he isn’t looking for Odell Beckham Jr.
4. Calais Campbell will register a sack and bat down a pass in his Ravens debut. The five-time Pro Bowl defensive end just turned 34, but he’s aged like a fine wine, playing the best football of his career with 31 1/2 sacks over the last three years with Jacksonville. Baltimore hasn’t had a 5-technique quite like Campbell since Trevor Pryce, who registered 13 sacks in his first year with the Ravens in 2006. The 6-foot-8, 300-pound Campbell may not do that, but he’ll have a strong Week 1 showing lining up outside and inside against a Browns offensive line less than 100 percent on Sunday.
5. The Ravens will handle their business with a 31-14 win in an unprecedented season opener. Week 1 is always unpredictable and Baltimore needs to come out of the gate focused playing in an empty M&T Bank Stadium, but this isn’t one to overthink as the better team with the same coaching staff from a year ago has a clear advantage against an outfit with a new staff that had very little time to establish its culture and way of doing things on the field this summer. The Browns showed in Week 4 last year that they certainly have the talent to win in Baltimore, but that one remains fresh in the minds of the Ravens, who will build a comfortable lead by the third quarter and win their fifth straight season-opening game.