BALTIMORE - DECEMBER 24: Ray Rice #27 of the Baltimore Ravens runs the ball in for a touchdown after a catch against the Cleveland Browns at M&T Bank Stadium on December 24, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Ravens defeated the Browns 20-14. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images)
When the Baltimore Ravens took a convincing 17-0 lead int halftime of the game with the Cleveland Browns yesterday, most fans were thrilled to see what had been a dominating performance up until that point, partially thanks to questionable play calling and time management on the part of the Browns. After a field goal by new Ravens placekicker Shayne Graham pushed the lead to 20-0 early in the third quarter, most fans and probably the players and coaches, thought the team could just coast to victory for the rest of the game.
Not so fast, Cleveland said. An inexplicable punt to the second best returner in the game after the Chicago Bears' Devin Hester, Joshua Cribbs energized the Browns with a 84 -yard punt return and the game was shortly back to being a competitive contest. A long TD drive after just another poor Joe Flacco interception cut the lead to 20-14 and then the Ravens had to hold on for dear life to settle for the victory.
The Browns contributed to the Ravens win with an early fumble and at the end of the first half, out of timeouts, Cleveland ran the ball, not leaving them any time to try to kick at least a field goal. Then late in the game, on fourth down, they threw a short pass that left them a few yards short of the first down. Finally, with perhaps one last chance to get the ball back to try to win the game, Ravens QB Joe Flacco drew the Browns defense offsides on a fourth and one in which it appeared Flacco had no intention of snapping the ball.
The Ravens were able to move the ball on offense, especially in the first half. RB Ray Rice went over the 100-yard combined total running and pass receiving, including a sweet 42-yard reception when he outran a slower linebacker to the ball and then the end one. Flacco also hit TE Ed Dickson on a short TD pass for the Ravens first score to finish with two TD passes, but the rest of his stats were less than impressive (11-24, 132 yards, 2-TD, 1-INT). Of course, dropped passes contributed to his bottom line, led by Dickson's two drops that would have extended drives that otherwise ended with Ravens punts.
WR Lee Evans, getting the start in place of the injured Anquan Boldin, caught exactly zero passes and while Flacco even tried to force the ball to him, it resulted in that one pick in the end zone on a deep throw to Evans. Joe completed a grand total of two passes to his wide receivers, both to rookie Torrey Smith. Fellow rookie Tandon Doss got his first decent playing time this season, but along with Evans and the other tight end, Dennis Pitta, were virtually invisible all day long.
The Ravens could have and should have won this game by a lot larger score than they did, and probably would have, had they not given the Browns the jump-start by punting to Cribbs when they had the chance to put their collective feet on Cleveland's throat when they had the chance. All too often that has happened this season, including the first time these two teams met three weeks ago, when the Ravens settled for a 24-10 win that saw them leave multiple scoring chances on the field and not on the scoreboard.
As the game recap said, "a win is a win," but with their next game, the final one in the regular season, coming up next week, they will need a much stronger effort to not only win the game but go onto the post season on a positive note. The Ravens currently lead the AFC North by virtue of their tie-breaking wins over the Pittsburgh Steelers. This also gives them the #2 playoff seed, a first-round bye and at least one home game for the first time in their last four trips to the post season.
However, if the Ravens lose to the Cincinnati Bengals next week and the Steelers win, Baltimore slips all the way to the 5th seed and once again will have to go on the road in the playoffs if they hope to make it t the Super Bowl. The Bengals won yesterday and with the New York Jets losing, Cincinnati currently holds the #6 and final seed in the playoffs. If that's not enough motivation for the Bengals to win at home against the Ravens, I don't know what is.
The Ravens have been less than impressive on the road against lesser teams and their last loss was at what appeared to be a surging San Diego Chargers team. Now they will have to go into enemy territory against a solid division opponent that almost came back to beat the Ravens in their first meeting in 2011. With a 3-4 road record, there is every reason to believe that the Ravens could falter next weekend, which would have disastrous results. At the same time, the Ravens have more than enough talent to win this game and make a huge statement as they head into the "second" season.