After ending the first half up 20-0, the Baltimore Ravens looked ready for a blowout. They had dominated the Cleveland Browns in most aspects of the game and had a comfortable lead over one of the most anemic offenses in football. Not only that, but the Ravens were at home looking to finish the season with a perfect home record and build some momentum going into the playoffs.
The Ravens can consider the first task completed with their 20-14 victory today. However, it's questionable that this win counts as positive momentum. The Ravens were completely shut out in the second half and the Browns put together a frantic comeback that only ended when a rookie lineman jumped offsides.
It was a very odd game for a team that usually plays great at home against subpar competition. No one expected this sort of game after the Ravens came out hot on offense, scoring on their first three possessions. Joe Flacco had thrown two touchdowns, and new kicker Shayne Graham had made both of his field-goal attempts.
The Browns offense had looked awful, especially in a sequence during the end of the second quarter where they drove to the Ravens' 5-yard line and came away with no points. That changed midway late in the third quarter when Joshua Cribbs returned a punt 84 yards for a touchdown.
The Ravens' next offensive series resulted in Flacco's only interception of the day. Flacco tried to force a deep ball to Lee Evans that was instead caught by veteran cornerback Sheldon Brown. The Browns took advantage of the mistake and drove 80 yards to cut the deficit to six points.
For the rest of the fourth quarter, the Ravens were unable to sustain any offense. Thankfully for them, the Browns struggled as well, turning the ball over on downs on their 45-yard line. The Ravens got the ball back and kept it thanks to an encroachment penalty on Browns defensive end Phil Taylor on 4th-and-2.
Although it was a tougher-than-expected game, the Ravens got the win and that's the important thing. Division games always have the potential to be difficult, especially against desperate teams like the Browns that have nothing to lose. However, the Ravens' next opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals, will be playing for a playoff berth—the reality is that the Ravens will need to play better to beat them.
What I Liked
Recently-signed Shayne Graham did a good job filling in for Billy Cundiff. He made two field goals of more than 40 yards, something Ravens fans had not been used to seeing from Cundiff. It's unclear how serious Cundiff's injury is, but it's looking like Graham may actually be the better kicker going forward.
Having Lardarius Webb back as a starting cornerback was very good for this defense. His interception turned out to be critical, as the Browns were driving into Ravens territory. Time and again, he has proved to be the best cornerback on the Ravens rooster. Now with five interceptions on the season, Webb may be on of the best cornerbacks in the AFC.
What I Didn't Like
This was just one of those games where the Ravens were afflicted with injuries. David Reed, Marshal Yanda and Cary Williams all suffered serious injuries that could possibly keep them out next week.
Reed had a knee injury that will likely be the end to his up-and-down season. Yanda and Williams will hopefully be back for the playoffs, although their injuries today were scary. Yanda had a rib contusion after taking a knee in the ribs, and Williams had a concussion that removed him from play.
Another disturbing thing today was the complete ineffectiveness of the wide receivers. Anquan Boldin is out for these final two regular-season games and his absence was felt today. Torrey Smith was the only receiver to catch a ball, and he only had two catches for 38 yards.
The running backs and Ed Dickson got some catches, saving Flacco from a completely terrible passing day. Still, the receivers' absence was very disturbing whether it be dropped balls or overthrown passes by Flacco. Lee Evans in particular has underachieved since he came here, and his zero catches today are not something that can continue if he wants to be a starting receiver.
The Ravens are still in line to win the AFC North and finish out the season with the AFC's 2 seed. However, a huge test awaits them next week as they travel to take on the Bengals. The Bengals need a win to make the playoffs, and the Ravens have lost on the road to lesser teams than this one.
While the Ravens take on the Bengals at 4:15 on New Years Day, the Steelers will face the Browns. A loss by the Steelers gives the Ravens the division, and an unlikely loss by the New England Patriots could give the Ravens the AFC's No. 1 seed. That being said, a loss to the Bengals and a Steelers win, and the Ravens can return to what Terrell Suggs calls their "vacation home in hell" as they would be a wild-card team again.
The pressure is on now more so than at any other time in the 2011 season. The difference between a home game after a two-week break and another playoff road trip with no break is monumental for this Ravens team. Next week the playoffs essentially start in Cincinnati—if the Ravens want to go anywhere this year, they'd better win.