On the surface, facing an 0-3 team like the Cleveland Browns, at home, in prime time seems like an easy out when you're the Baltimore Ravens. But it's precisely the games that should, on paper, be a blowout that end up being the most bothersome.
Ultimately, Baltimore defeated the Browns, 23-16, but it wasn't the dominating performance most had anticipated. However, quarterback Joe Flacco yet again proved that perhaps the Ravens can now rely on his shoulders to win games rather than constantly leaning on their defense to pull them through.
Yes, that defense did its part—harassed cornerback Cary Williams had a moment of redemption with an interception of Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden, which he returned for a touchdown, and Cleveland rookie Trent Richardson had to fight for every one of the 47 yards he gained—but again, it was Flacco and his receivers who had the better day.
It was close for a while there, however. Without that pick-six, the Ravens and Browns offenses each scored 16 points, and Baltimore didn't put up a single offensive point after the 9:53 mark in the third quarter.
That score came from a Flacco one-yard run. The first was a 18-yard reception by Torrey Smith, one of his four first-half catches which made up 79 of his total 97 yards. A Justin Tucker 45-yard field goal made up the rest of Baltimore's offensive scoring (he missed another later in the game, as well as an extra point).
But mainly, the offense can be credited for keeping drives moving. Baltimore had a 33:03 time of possession to the Browns' 26:57 and they utilized a variety of pass plays to move the ball. Flacco was especially adept at the deep ball, as the Cleveland front seven repeatedly neutralized short passing.
If the first half was about Smith, the second was all about Anquan Boldin. Boldin was repeatedly outmatching Browns defenders Dimitri Patterson and Buster Skrine and he ultimately caught nine of the 14 passes thrown his way, for 131 yards.
Yes, the Ravens ultimately ended up passing more than running, with Flacco throwing 46 times, with 28 completions and 356 yards, but it wasn't in spite of Ray Rice's talents. Surprisingly enough, the Browns and their generally weak run defense held Rice at bay, with the back gaining just 49 yards on 18 carries.
Though Flacco wasn't entirely flashy, in the sense of what we saw out of him in previous weeks, he did manage to get the job done.
The Ravens aren't an invulnerable team, and they didn't particularly win pretty against Cleveland on Thursday. You can still see the effects of not having Jarret Johnson and Terrell Suggs, the pass rush is a work in progress (Baltimore sacked Weeden only once) and Rice is still being thrown to too much considering the talents of their other offensive players. Eleven penalties for 100 yards wasn't too sharp, either.
But Baltimore executed better when it mattered and had far fewer, game-changing mistakes. As with every team, the Ravens have areas that they can improve and there is time in which to do so; however, at 3-1, they're poised to at least be tied for tops in the AFC North after the weekend is through and the talent level is clearly high on both offense and defense.
Baltimore didn't falter in a game that could have slipped away from them; it was a fight against the Browns, and the Ravens yet again came out on top.