Ravens Beat Browns, Clinch Playoff Berth and Find Offensive Identity in Process

Alan Zlotorzynski@@zlotsportsCorrespondent IIIDecember 26, 2010

It wasn’t pretty Ravens fans, but a win on the road in December against a divisional opponent is a good win. In a football game reminiscent of Ravens' football past, the Ravens defense caused four Cleveland turnovers and churned out 161 rushing yards to win a tough December road game.

The Ravens moved to 11-4 and clinched at least a Wild Card berth. The Ravens will travel to the playoffs for the third consecutive season, a first in franchise history. The last time an NFL team in Baltimore made three straight postseason appearances, Bert Jones was the quarterback as he led the Baltimore Colts to the playoffs in 1975, 1976 and 1977.

After a Colt McCoy interception on the Browns' first drive, they would need only four plays on their second drive to take the early lead.

Seneca Wallace, in the game in a mock wildcat formation on first down, took the snap and handed off to Payton Hillis. Hillis then pitched the ball back to Mohammed Massaquoi, who threw a 29-yard pass to Brian Robiskie in the end zone.

On the drive following the Browns touchdown, the Ravens traveled 80 yards in 16 plays, their longest drive of the season. After a Billy Cundiff 27-yard field goal, the Ravens cut the lead to 7-3.

The Browns committed their second turnover of the day on the first play of the ensuing drive. After a nine-yard catch and run, Massaquoi fumbled, and after a Jameel McClain recovery and return, the Ravens had excellent field position.

Joe Flacco needed just three plays, and for the third consecutive week, converted a third down into a touchdown. Flacco hit TJ Houshmandzedah in stride on 3rd-and-5 to put the Ravens ahead for good, 10-7.

The Ravens defense continued to force McCoy into turnovers, and six plays into their next drive, McCoy threw his second interception of the day. This time Ed Reed jumped in front of a pass intended for Massaquoi. The Ravens converted this turnover into three points on a 40-yard Cundiff field goal, giving the Ravens a 13-7 lead.

The Browns put together a 10-play drive before halftime, cutting the lead to three with a Phil Dawson field goal just before the end of the half.

The Ravens got three first-half turnovers but only led by three points as the Browns held a slight first half advantage in total yards. The score was 13-10 after the first half.

Perhaps coaching in his next-to-last game as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, Eric Mangini turned to his bag of tricks once again in this game to start the second half.

Mangini had Browns kicker Phil Dawson attempt an onside kick to open the second half, but Dawson kicked the ball at a very sharp left angle. Not only did the football fail to travel the required 10 yards, but it rolled out of bounds, giving the Ravens excellent field position to start the third quarter.

For the first time since November 11th in a game at Atlanta, the Ravens scored an offensive touchdown in the third quarter. Three plays following the failed onside kick, Flacco threw his second TD pass of the game, a 22-yard strike to WR Derrick Mason, making the score 20-10.

Mason led all receivers today with four catches for 50 yards and one touchdown.

The Ravens played ball control offense in the fourth quarter, keeping the ball on the ground for 14 of their 17 plays in the final period. Ray Rice led the Ravens' rushing attack with 92 yards.

Ravens QB Joe Flacco didn’t have spectacular numbers, 12-for-19 for 102 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, but his two touchdowns came at crucial times and he made two first downs with his legs, scrambling for 16 yards.

Flacco is just the fourth quarterback in NFL history to reach the postseason in his first three years. While the Ravens seem to have found an offensive identity in getting back to running the ball, Ravens fans should feel comfortable knowing Flacco can win a game with his arm.

Flacco’s interception was only his fourth in his last 11 games and his first since throwing one against the Buccaneers back on November 28. Since throwing four interceptions against Cincinnati in Week 2, Flacco has 24 touchdowns and just four interceptions.  

Cleveland showed signs of adding to the Ravens' defensive tendency of giving up fourth quarter points. The Ravens would bend but not break, and for the 10th time in his career and second time this season, Ed Reed recorded his second interception of the day, ending any Cleveland threat and their day.

The Ravens ran nine plays and chewed 4:21 off the clock. Cleveland took over on downs with just 14 seconds remaining in the game.

The Ravens defense continued their NFL record of not giving up a third quarter touchdown. The defense extended the streak to 24 games today.

While the third quarter streak is an amazing statistic, the fact that the Ravens did not give up any fourth quarter points since playing the Miami Dolphins in their eighth game this season is a promising sign headed into the playoffs.

They surrendered just seven third quarter points to a high-powered Saints offense in a win last week at home.

Ravens fans should be pleased. While I’m sure the local papers will point out the Ravens still have many issues offensively, I would contend the opposite. They seemed to have found an offensive identity that they were missing for 13 games into the season.  

Cam Cameron, John Harbaugh and Greg Mattison took a lot of deserved heat and criticism for 13 weeks. Fans and media alike were wondering what the Ravens were offensively and why we couldn’t stop anyone late defensively.

For now and apparently at just the right time, we know what the Ravens are on offense. The Ravens are a team that can run it down your throat, with a QB that can beat you if you force him to beat you. The defensive problems have disappeared, for now.

It’s no coincidence that the defensive issues have disappeared at the same time the offense has figured its identity. The Ravens finally realized the best way to rest an aging defense is to not have them on the field.

Picking up first downs in the fourth quarter by running the ball with a lead and leaving your defense on the bench isn’t magic; it’s just smart football.

I will be cheering like crazy next week for the same Browns team I was damning today. The Steelers are in Cleveland next Sunday and if the Browns can beat them again this year as they did last year in Cleveland, the Ravens can still win the division and earn a first round bye.

All the Ravens have to do is beat a Bengals team that has beaten them the last three times. Do you love the NFL or what?


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