It was a little too close for comfort, but the Baltimore Ravens did what was needed to dispose of the Cleveland Browns on Thursday Night Football. The final of 23-16 is correct in indicating that the game was close; in fact the final play was a Hail Mary where the Browns had a chance to tie the game.
However that was not the full story of the game. The Ravens did show some dominance in their ninth consecutive win over the Browns, as they led by nine points in the third quarter and 13 points entering the fourth quarter. They did show some problems in keeping the Browns in the game, hence the opportunity for them to tie it up.
There are clearly areas for both optimism and pessimism after a close win versus a winless team that the Ravens were supposed to dominate.
Optimists can point to the quick turnaround from Sunday's win over the New England Patriots, as well as the miserable weather and the rain that was present throughout the game.
Pessimists can worry about the offense coming out flat early on and the fact that the Browns might have been a replacement ref away from sending this game to overtime.
What matters most is the Ravens got the win and still possess first place in the AFC North with a 2-0 record against the division and a 3-1 record overall. While they enjoy a 10-day rest before facing the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 5, let's take a look at who the winners and losers were in this game.
Anquan Boldin finally had his breakout game for the 2012 NFL season as he only had 10 catches total in the season's first three weeks.
Last night though, he put up huge numbers with nine catches for 131 yards. Although he has only scored one touchdown this season, he continually got open and helped the Ravens to move the chains.
Part of the reason for Boldin's big game was because of the Browns' defensive strategies. They were trying to use single coverage in an attempt mostly to shut down big-play threat Torrey Smith. Yet Smith still managed a decent game with six catches for 97 yards and a touchdown.
The position group that the Browns successfully took out of the game was the tight ends.
Both Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson ended the game with zero catches, which makes what Boldin did a little more special as he was picking the short catches that Pitta had been getting in previous weeks.
Boldin's huge game should serve to silence naysayers and also remind opposing defenses that Smith isn't the only threat that Baltimore has at the wide receiver position.
The offensive line as a whole was dreadful last night. Joe Flacco was sacked three times and was hurried on numerous other plays.
The linemen were not helping out as many of them were losing the battle at the line of scrimmage. Nearly all of them had at least one bad play, but Michael Oher had several while in pass protection.
What made Oher's night even worse, though, were some awful penalties that were called on him, particularly the awful holding penalty late in the fourth quarter that helped the Browns get the ball back for their first offensive drive.
It's disturbing to still see Oher's tendency for mental errors now in his fourth season, and it's clearly something that's holding him back as a player.
The Ravens' pass rush was essentially missing in action for nearly the entire game. Well except the actions of Haloti Ngata, the player who carried the Ravens' defensive line last night.
Ngata had three tackles on the night, and though he didn't record a sack he got some pressure on Brandon Weeden. He kept some semblance of a pass rush going as both Maake Kemoeatu and Pernell McPhee made almost no contributions at all.
It's clear that Ngata is still one of the most important players on the Ravens defense, and with the Terrell Suggs injury he may very well be the defense's best player. Even Ed Reed and Ray Lewis will have off-games as both players didn't do much last night. That's what makes it important for Ngata to step up and be a defensive leader in situations like these.
The formerly vaunted Ravens pass rush totaled one sack against the Browns. That is disturbingly low production, and if this trend continues it could show that the pass rush is now one of the Ravens' greatest weaknesses.
Interestingly the player that got the sack was also one of the more disappointing players in the game. Paul Kruger had two tackles in addition to his sack. He also broke up some passes and helped to defend against the run.
It's becoming clear though that Kruger and his fellow outside linebackers are unable to replace what Terrell Suggs brought to the table. Even with his solid play, Kruger had an awful unnecessary roughness penalty that extended the Browns' final drive. Luckily for him Brandon Weeden overthrew his target and the game ended with an incomplete pass.
It's impressive when a player undergoes extreme criticism, yet still finds a way to play one of the best games of his career. The NFL is a week-to-week league, and the players that are successful are the ones that can put away mental mistakes from the previous week.
Or in this case, four days ago.
Cary Williams has been a bit of a lightning rod for criticism ever since the beginning of the preseason when it seemed opposing quarterbacks were specifically targeting him. He reached a low on Sunday against the Patriots when Brandon Lloyd gathered over 100 yards against him.
Williams had a terrific night against the Browns, though, as he had three tackles and a beautiful interception for a touchdown in the third quarter. Of course an interception for a touchdown is almost always a sign of a good game, but Williams also deserves credit for showing improvement in defending the pass.
Granted this was against the Browns' uninspiring receivers, but still credit is due to Williams for playing hard and not letting the criticism get to him.
Keeping with the theme of the NFL being a week-to-week league, Justin Tucker is switching places with Cary Williams. Tucker was the hero who kicked the game-winning field goal against the New England Patriots, and prior to Thursday night he had not missed a field goal in his NFL career.
That changed though as Tucker had a kick go wide right against the Browns. He also missed an extra point after the game's first touchdown, although that was mostly due to a botched snap by Sam Koch.
With kickers it's typically all or nothing—and yesterday was clearly Tucker's first bad game. Last night performance also sheds some doubt on his game-winner against the New England Patriots, which was nearly a miss. He did make a 45-yarder and appeared not to let his struggles get him down.
For once Ray Rice was not the running back of note in a Ravens game. He still led the team in rushing yards with 49 but that was literally one yard ahead of the team's second-place rusher.
That was rookie Bernard Pierce who had his best NFL game so far. He totaled 48 rushing yards on six attempts, with an average of eight yards a carry. He ran with power and conviction and nearly broke off a first down to end the game late in the fourth quarter.
Clearly this was an off-night for Rice, who had his worst game of the season. Pierce really stepped things up though, and with his running style being so different from Rice, he looks like a good choice for backup running back.
The Ravens' rush offense will become that much scarier if Pierce can develop into a reliable threat—and so far he looks like he's on the way to doing so.