Ravens, Browns playing for a lot more than a win

For Baltimore, shot at division title, playoff seeding hangs in balance; for Cleveland, pride is on the line

December 25, 2010|Peter Schmuck

If you don't think the Cleveland Browns are a dangerous team, you obviously did not see them throw a fourth-quarter scare into the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium or spank the New England Patriots and defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints this season.

If you're worried that the Ravens won't enter Sunday's game at Cleveland Browns Stadium with the same intensity that they showed against the Saints last week, you probably weren't listening to Ray Lewis or Le'Ron McClain over the past week.

The Browns aren't going anywhere this season, but they've got a lot to play for — both this weekend and next, when they get a chance to play the spoiler against the Pittsburgh Steelers if they don't do that against the Ravens.

The small issue of the Ravens' being the former Cleveland Browns might add a little spice to the matchup for the fans, but if the Browns prevent the Ravens from clinching a playoff spot, it will be because Eric Mangini has done a pretty good job of getting his team up for its most formidable opponents.

Of course, everyone remembers the way the Browns lumbered into Baltimore in Week 3 and nearly lumbered out of town with a victory behind a relatively unknown Mack truck of a running back named Peyton Hillis. The Ravens held on for dear life to avoid back-to-back division losses, but that game was an early wake-up call for the run defense, which has been dependable enough since, ranking fifth in the NFL.

Can Hillis run roughshod over the Ravens again? Probably not.

He won't be sneaking up on them this time, and the Browns do not have the passing game to divert the Ravens' attention away from the run. It seems more likely that it will be the Ravens who double down on last week's big performance against the Saints and run over and around the Browns to stamp their ticket to the postseason.

It's not a must-win situation, though the Ravens need to treat it like one. They have to win only one of their two remaining games to get into the playoffs for the third straight season, and they close at home against the beleaguered Cincinnati Bengals, but it is a big need-to-win situation if the Ravens are to retain faint hope of winning the division and gaining a bye through the first week of the playoffs.

The thing that makes this game even more interesting is that the Browns hold the keys to the kingdom for the Ravens both this week and next. The trick here is to beat the Browns without taking the starch out of them because they conceivably could deliver the division title to Baltimore with a Week 17 victory over the Steelers.

No doubt, Browns fans would have mixed feelings about their team smoothing the playoff path for the franchise that jilted them so painfully, but the players should have plenty of motivation to end the season by throwing a roadblock in front of the rival Steelers.

They probably don't have the talent, but I would have said that before the Browns dropped 30 points on the Saints and then came off their bye week to trounce the Patriots in Week 9. The NFL really has become an "any given Sunday" league, so you can't rule anything out.

The Ravens are just trying to hold serve at the moment. The Steelers have the schedule on their side after beating up the lowly Carolina Panthers at Heinz Field on Thursday night. They've got 10 days for Ben Roethlisberger to get his nose straightened again and gear up for a regular-season finale that has a big carrot attached to it.

It's hard to imagine them blinking against the Browns with a first-round bye and second-round home-field advantage hanging in the balance, but stranger things have happened this season, so the Ravens need to take care of business.

I'm pretty sure they've already figured that out.


Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon Fridays and Saturdays and at 6 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays with Brett Hollander. Also, check out his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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