The Cleveland Browns are probably the least talented team in the NFL from an overall perspective. Sure, they have their guys that are good—Josh Cribbs, Shaun Rogers, and several of their new rookies this year are certainly talented individuals.
But the Ravens are loaded. (Other than, perhaps, at quarterback, judging by last week's performance. But I digress.) They are more talented on both sides of the ball, at almost every position. They have a better coaching staff. And one more thing—they are at home.
Baltimore is one of the toughest places to win on the road in all the NFL, even when the team can't buy a road win to save its life, it's a tough out in the friendly confines of M&T Bank Stadium.
Still, while I think it's safe to say the Ravens are a heavy favorite to win this game, you don't win just by showing up. You win by "buckling up your chin strap," as Ray Lewis would say.
Here are the important things to look out for during Sunday's game.
This should be obvious, but evidently it hasn't been thanks to Cam Cameron's decision to largely abandon the run against the Bengals last week despite Joe Flacco's continuing struggles throughout the game. RB Ray Rice had only 16 carries and four receptions against the Bengals, despite the fact that he averaged a whopping 5.4 yards a carry. To be fair 30 yards did come on one play.
Rice is still the Ravens' top offensive threat, and he should get at least 25 touches per game unless the Ravens are blowing the other team out. NT Shaun Rogers is a former Pro Bowler, and he'll do a decent job of protecting Cleveland's linebackers from Baltimore's offensive guards, Ben Grubbs and Chris Chester (assuming Oniel Cousins does not play, in which case Marshal Yanda would kick inside to RG in place of Chester).
The real problem for the Browns, though, won't be protecting their linebackers; it will be the linebackers themselves. Journeymen ILBs Eric Barton and Chris Gocong simply do not match up with the talent of elite NFL running backs like Ray Rice, especially in space on screen passes or in the flats.
This part of the gameplan is pretty simple: feed it to your best offensive player and see what happens. Rice could easily have 150 yards from scrimmage in this game, maybe more.
One last thing. The Browns made extensive efforts to overhaul their defensive secondary in the offseason, headlined by drafting former Florida CB Joe Haden in the first round. All the more reason to go to Rice, who the DBs won't be covering.
You'll immediately notice that for Cribbs's position I have wide receiver in quotation marks, because he actually does almost everything for this Browns offense. Cleveland's top two receivers are Mohammed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie, both second round picks in last year's NFL draft that haven't really shown much as yet in their NFL careers.
The Ravens did a nice job containing "Batman and Robin" last week, and these two just aren't as talented or experienced, so the Ravens secondary shouldn't be troubled too much, at least conventionally.
Cribbs is one of those rare guys that is a threat to score every time he touches the ball in the return game, as a "wide receiver," or in the Wildcat formation. The Ravens need to make sure they key on him at all times, or they will get burned at least once.
Cribbs's biggest impact, though, might be in the return game, and so if the Ravens can contain him on kick and punt returns, then they'll have a great chance to win this game.
Granted if he breaks loose once, the Ravens still have a great chance to win this game, but they'd have an even better one if they could contain him altogether.
The Ravens have a history of dominating the Browns, and a big reason for their success of late has been the play of standout LB Terrell Suggs, who has amassed 11 sacks against the Browns during his time in the NFL, more than he has against any other team.
However, not all those sacks have come against the Browns' all-world LT Joe Thomas, arguably the best in the league at his position. If the Browns want to move the ball, they will have to contain Suggs, and they don't have the personnel to help Thomas with chips from backs or brushes from tight ends due to the overall talent of the Ravens defense.
That leaves Thomas out on an island against Suggs protecting the blind side of Browns QB Seneca Wallace. If the Browns are going to move the ball through the air, their two top receivers will probably need a little bit of extra time to get open against the Ravens tough defensive backfield (nice to be writing that after writing the opposite all offseason).
The only way to get more time is to hold your blocks, and if Suggs is draped all over Wallace's back all night, the Browns might get shut out. Having said that, I think this is one area where the Browns will do well, and I'd give the edge to Thomas in this matchup.
The matchup between Thomas and Suggs will be on the other end of the Browns' offensive line, and while the Browns are strong on QB Seneca Wallace's blind side, the same does not hold true for the right side of their offensive line.
Enter Jarret Johnson, one of the most underrated players in the NFL (though it is hard not to be, playing in the shadow of guys like Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs). Johnson will be making his 100th consecutive start in the NFL, which speaks to his durability but also to his ability to come up with big plays when the Ravens need him.
Because I think Suggs will have a quiet week against Thomas, the onus of putting pressure on the QB falls to the other edge rusher, and that's Johnson.
A big game from Johnson would go a long, long way toward a Ravens victory, and because he's got such a favorable matchup, I'm comfortable predicting one.
While the Ravens appear to yet again have one of the league's best defenses, good quarterback play has been what consistently beats them, mostly because the Ravens haven't had the offensive firepower to keep pace if the defense has a bad day.
It logically follows, then, that for the Browns to have any sort of chance at winning this game, Seneca Wallace has to play out of his mind. His mobility to evade Baltimore's pass rush will certainly help, especially if as I'm projecting the free rusher will usually come from Wallace's front side.
Wallace is a career backup, but is mobile enough to give the Ravens fits if he plays well and doesn't force the ball into coverage. I don't necessarily expect him to have a good game, but it might be his last chance to play this year, and if he does play well, look out.
Yeah, okay, so it might be a little bit cheap to call Heap a "sleeper" when he's been to the Pro Bowl. However, he's several years removed from that, and I think he's likely to have a big game for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, he showed against the Jets that he could put up decent numbers against a pretty good defense, and Cleveland is clearly a step below the Jets defensively.
I've already mentioned that the Browns are probably at their strongest in the defensive secondary, and this is where Heap comes in. He's faster than the Browns linebackers and I think he could have a huge game, particularly if you play in a PPR league, because I think he'll be working the middle of the field frequently and the Ravens' wideouts will have tougher matchups against Browns CBs Eric Wright and Sheldon Brown.
It's a risky start, especially in 10 team leagues, but if you're in a deeper league, I think Heap might be worth a look this week.
To wrap up, I'll be looking at the implications of this game for both teams.
For the Browns, if they want to have any shot of competing this year, 0-3 is pretty much game over in the NFL, so just to stay alive they'll need to pick up a key division win on the road. If you don't win in your division, it's tough to make the playoffs, which the Browns have done only once since their rebirth after the original Browns moved to Baltimore before the 1996 season.
Still, a Cleveland win would qualify as a huge upset—it would be completely unexpected—and it would breathe life back into their season. Of course if the Browns win I'll be eating my words on Monday morning, only after using extensive profanity for the remainder of Sunday night, however.
For the Ravens, this game is an expected win. Not only is it against one of the NFL's perennial doormats, it is the team's home opener and a division game. The Ravens would be headed into next week's road game against the hated Steelers with a chance for the division lead if Pittsburgh loses to Tampa this week or with a chance to tie atop the division if the Steelers win again. But thinking about the Steelers already is one way the Ravens could lose this week.
That's why I'm a fan and don't play, because I do look ahead. But if anyone is going to take the Ravens seriously, this is a must win. If anyone is going to respect the Browns at all, well, they probably have to win too. It's hard to believe that it's a must win for both teams already—in week 3—but it seems very much the case.
As for a prediction, I'll take the Ravens, 21-9.