Ravens can begin putting stranglehold on floundering AFC North

September 26, 2019 | Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The first-place Ravens were disappointed with their Week 3 loss in Kansas City, but everyone else in the AFC North would gladly trade places right now.

Pittsburgh is 0-3 and has already lost future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the season. Cincinnati is winless under new head coach Zac Taylor and still without star wide receiver A.J. Green. Those teams face off Monday with only one avoiding going 0-for-September. Last year’s Houston Texans were the only 0-3 team in the last 20 years to rally to make the playoffs.

And then there’s Cleveland, the offseason division champions who added three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and former Pro Bowl defensive linemen Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson. The Browns won five of their last seven games last season with first overall pick Baker Mayfield leading the way and being hyped as the next big thing at the quarterback position.

Even Ravens head coach John Harbaugh touted Cleveland as the most talented team in the division in March, but the defending AFC North champions mostly bit their tongues over these last six months.

“In the media, they’re talking about OBJ and that [wide receiver] tandem and Baker Mayfield, the next savior,” safety Earl Thomas said. “He had a hot start [last year]. And then, to add on to that, coach ‘Harbs’ talked about it a couple of times in meetings, so guys kind of got tired of it.”

The Browns haven’t lived up to expectations so far under first-year head coach Freddie Kitchens, losing their first two home games and beating the injury-ravaged New York Jets for their only win. An offense with plenty of skill talent has been a bottom 10 group with Mayfield struggling behind a shaky offensive line. Their defense has played well the last two weeks, but the entire staring secondary missed last week’s loss to the Los Angeles Rams and only safety Damarious Randall has returned to practice so far this week.

Cleveland travels to Baltimore Sunday and plays three straight games against teams with winning records after that. In other words, it could get late very early for a team with playoff aspirations.

Meanwhile, the Ravens took full advantage of a soft first two weeks to now lead the NFL in total offense, rushing offense, and points per game behind quarterback Lamar Jackson, who has looked more like the young star many expected Mayfield to be this season. The 22-year-old says he wasn’t bothered by the attention being elsewhere this offseason as he focused on improving his passing ability.

“I didn’t care. I’m just worried about the Ravens. I don’t really care about other teams,” said Jackson, who’s thrown seven touchdowns with no interceptions and a 113.9 passer rating so far. “I don’t, so I really didn’t care at all. And they’re supposed to hype themselves up. We’re going to hype ourselves up. We’re just not going to do it out of the ordinary.”

The Ravens have plenty of motivation coming off the 33-28 loss to the Chiefs with an opportunity to now put a stranglehold on the AFC North by Columbus Day with three straight division games. But the Browns are desperate, knowing a loss would put them two games behind the Ravens with their schedule not letting up at all after that.

Even if overhyped, the Cleveland offense is seemingly too talented to continue to be this bad, an uncomfortable thought with the Baltimore pass defense experiencing too many coverage breakdowns and ranking just 27th in the NFL through three weeks. The Ravens would be wise to jump in front early rather than leaving Mayfield and the Browns in the game after they nearly overcame a double-digit deficit at M&T Bank Stadium in Week 17 last year.

Ten of the last 15 meetings between these teams have been decided by one score, even with the Ravens winning 12 of those games and the Browns being dreadful over most of that stretch.

“Cleveland always plays us pretty hard,” defensive tackle Brandon Williams said. “They always give us everything they’ve got, given the history. We’re just ready for a battle on Sunday.”

The Ravens may have fallen short in proving they belong at the AFC’s elite level with Kansas City and New England, but these next three games can put them in the driver’s seat in the division. If they eye bigger goals in 2019, seizing control of the floundering AFC North is the first step.

The Browns lack the established leadership to survive falling into such an early hole and are already barking back at early criticism. The Steelers aren’t throwing in the towel yet after recently trading for defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick and tight end Nick Vannett, but it’s a lot to ask of second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph to keep them in the race after such a dismal start. And while the Bengals have tormented Baltimore in recent years, they’ve been spinning their wheels since 2015.

This could already be the Ravens’ division to lose — ESPN Analytics estimates their AFC North title odds at already more than 80 percent — but that early lead disappears if they don’t take care of business against the Browns. The next three weeks could set the tone for whether Baltimore will run away with the division — and set its sights higher — or be in the midst of another grind for the AFC North title.

“Every game is big, but these games, I feel like they count for two games,” Harbaugh said. “It’s an opportunity to win one and have your opponent not win one. And that’s big. The Browns are excellent. They have tremendous talent. They play very hard. You’ve seen this defense fly around. It’s going to be a big challenge for us, dealing with these guys. They’ll be fired up.

“We just have to go play good football and play our best football and be the Ravens.”

Below is Thursday’s injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Otaro Alaka (hamstring), TE Mark Andrews (foot), CB Jimmy Smith (knee), S Brynden Trawick (elbow)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: CB Marlon Humphrey (hip)
FULL PARTICIPATION: S Earl Thomas (non-injury)

CLEVELAND
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: S Morgan Burnett (quad), WR Rashard Higgins (knee), OT Kendall Lamm (knee), DT Devaroe Lawrence (non-injury), S Sheldrick Redwine (hamstring), CB Denzel Ward (hamstring), CB Greedy Williams (hamstring)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: G Joel Bitonio (abdomen), OT Chris Hubbard (foot), LB Adarius Taylor (ankle)
FULL PARTICIPATION: WR Odell Beckham Jr. (hip), LS Charlie Hughlett (shoulder), DT Devaroe Lawrence (non-injury), S Damarious Randall (concussion), K Austin Seibert (right hip)