Browns vs. Ravens: Ways Cleveland Can Avoid a Repeat of Week 13's Loss
On Christmas Eve, as Santa gears up for the biggest night of his year, the Browns will be playing their second-last game of 2011, looking for an upset of the playoff-bound Ravens in order to match their five-win total from last year.
It doesn't look good for the Browns, who have yet to win a game against an AFC North divisional opponent this season and who had a terrible game against Baltimore in Week 13, a 24-10 loss that was sadly a far more sound beating for the Browns than the scoreboard indicated.
A win for the Browns isn't totally out of the question, but it would probably take a Christmas miracle to pull it off.
Following are the keys to the game for the Browns that should give them a shot at an upset or at least allow them to keep the score close if they can execute them properly.
1. Avoid Run Defense Redux
When the Browns faced the Ravens in Week 13, we all knew that perhaps the biggest key to a possible upset would have been for the Browns to stop Baltimore's fearsome run game.
Instead, things went about as badly as possible, with Ray Rice rushing for a crushing 204 yards and Baltimore runners putting up 290 yards total.
The fact that a run-heavy offense like that of the Ravens gave Cleveland fits isn't surprising. No one expected the Browns to be able to completely shut down Rice, but the goal was to keep him under 100 yards. Instead, they couldn't even keep him under 200.
In the Browns' second match with the Ravens, our expectations upon entering the game have to remain the same for keeping Rice reined in. Rice burned the run defense before and he'll do it again, but this time, the Browns absolutely have to keep him under control.
The Browns did a relatively nice job shutting down the Ravens passing game in the first game between the two, and the Ravens running game killed them anyway. If the Browns can't stop Rice and his fellow Ravens rushers, it won't matter how well they deal with QB Joe Flacco and his receivers because Baltimore won't need its passing game to win.
It's worth noting that the Ravens passing game did take a further hit this week when it was announced that WR Anquan Boldin will have knee surgery and miss the remainder of the season. Obviously that can only help the Browns (Lee Evans will start in Boldin's place), but it likely won't help them nearly enough if they let the Baltimore rushers steamroll them again.
2. Can QB Seneca Wallace Keep It Up?
Seneca Wallace had a solid performance against Arizona last week, though he ultimately fell short in the end and couldn't bring home a win. What Wallace did, stepping in after a year without seeing almost any regular season playing time, is to be commended.
However, we all need to keep in mind that this does not really create a quarterback controversy. Wallace did a nice job in Arizona. We can all argue forever about whether McCoy would or would not have done better, and we'll never know the answer. But the bottom line is that the job is still McCoy's, and to call for anything else with two games left in the season would only hurt the Browns.
That said, even if it's still in a back-up capacity, Wallace will no doubt get his second start of the season this Saturday, with McCoy still not cleared to practice and game day drawing near.
McCoy and the Browns passing game struggled against the Ravens in Week 13. Perhaps Wallace will far better, and perhaps he won't. But he's going to have to if the Browns want to have any chance of a win.
The Browns will have a terrible time trying to run the ball against the Ravens notoriously stingy run defense. They'll still have to try, of course, but they'll never get to the Ravens defense enough to even slightly scare them doing only that. The passing game simply has to work on Saturday, or the Browns' chances at an upset wil be beyond bleak.
3. An Impossible Goal for Peyton Hillis
The last time the Browns faced the Ravens, RB Peyton Hillis was fresh off the nagging hamstring injury that kept him sidelined for the better part of the season and was largely a non-factor in the contest.
While Hillis was Cleveland's leading rusher in that game, he logged just 45 yards on nine carries against Baltimore's seemingly impenetrable run defense.
But impenetrable run defense or not, the Browns and Hillis will still have to get something going on the ground if they want to compete in this game.
As stated previously, relying on the pass more than the run will obviously be the strategy, but obviously, the Browns can't move to a completely one-dimensional passing offense, particularly when their passing game can barely keep up its end of the bargain when it's only a part of the equation.
No one can or should expect monster numbers out of Hillis and the rest of the Cleveland rushers against Baltimore's run defense. But they'll have to contribute to keep the Ravens defense honest and take some pressure off Wallace and the receivers, and Hillis will have to be the guy leading the charge.
4. Play Spoiler
It's not all that often you get the chance to ruin the day of someone who really, really earned it. I'm sure Ravens fans see it differently, but from where I'm sitting in Cleveland, I can't think of anyone more deserving of a little frontier justice than the city that stole our football team.
The Ravens are tied at the top of the AFC North at 10-4 with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The bad news is that no matter what, they've already clinched a playoff berth. The good news is that a win by the Browns just might kill their chances to win the division.
That's right, the Browns have an excellent opportunity to play spoiler this week. It's always a fun role to play for teams already eliminated from contention, but it's even more fun if it's an opportunity to dish out a little revenge to a team that has wronged you in the past.
I know, I know...would it really be better if Pittsburgh came out on top of the AFC North? Probably not, but the Browns will have a shot to do this very same thing to the Steelers next week.
Sadly, whether the Browns beat both or neither of them, one of them will still win the North. But if the Browns could beat them both, they could hurt them both in the playoff seeding, and therefore, increase the chances that one or both of them will be knocked out of the postseason by another team sooner.
It's not much of a consolation prize for our playoff-starved fanbase, but it's better than nothing. And if we have to play the Ravens for Christmas, we may as well do our best to spoil their holiday, right?