Baltimore Ravens vs. Cleveland Browns: Matchups, prediction for critical AFC North clash

Lamar Jackson and the sputtering Baltimore Ravens look to get back on track against Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns.

The Baltimore Ravens (8-4) are at a crossroads. The Cleveland Browns (6-6) are the picture of inconsistency. Yet for all of their recent struggles, there’s an 87% chance one of these AFC North foes will be playing in mid-January. But if either of these teams wants to actually do something in the postseason, they’ll need to perform a much higher level than they have so far this year. This is the 46th all-time meeting between the Browns and the team that used to be the Browns, with the Ravens holding a commanding 34-11 series edge. That includes a 16-10 Baltimore victory in Week 12.

Baltimore Ravens offense vs. Cleveland Browns defense

The past month has been dreadfully out of character for the Ravens. They’ve scored 61 points in their last four games, and during that stretch are 21st in expected points added per play (-0.075). And there hasn’t really been one aspect of the offense more to blame. Both the ground game and the passing attack have been mediocre to downright bad. Ravens running backs averaged 3.1 yards per carry against the Steelers in Week 13, and Baltimore managed just 5.0 yards per pass.

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When the Browns blow up defensively, they really blow up. They allowed 33 or more points in four of their first 12 games, including 45 or more twice. But when they don’t blow up, they’re quite good. They’ve allowed 16 or fewer points in five of their last six games, a stretch that includes their Week 12 loss to the Ravens. Cleveland held Baltimore to 3.9 yards per play in the teams’ first meeting.

Lamar Jackson vs. Browns defense

Jackson hasn’t had a QBR over 50 — the Mendoza line for an above or below-average quarterback — in nearly two months. His turnovers have been egregious and destructive. The 8 interceptions he’s thrown since Week 9 are not only the most in a four-game span in his career, they’re also more than he threw in his first or second NFL seasons. His bad throw (19.9%) and on-target (73.0%) rates are both noticeably worse than his career averages, and he’s making those mistakes with essentially the same pressure rate (22.4%) and pocket time (2.4 seconds) that he had in 2020.

Jackson was terrible when the teams met two weeks ago, throwing 4 interceptions on 20-of-32 passing. The Browns forced Lamar into the worst passer rating of his career (46.5) and 3 interceptions over a six-play stretch. On the year, the Browns are sixth in interception rate (1.7%) and 13th in yards per pass (6.9), but 25th in third-down defense (36.8%). The wild card with Jackson, as always, is his ability to create with his legs. The Browns did a good job against him last time out, holding Jackson to 4.0 yards per carry.

Advantage: Push

Ravens weapons vs. Browns defensive backs

The Ravens have the ninth-most completions of 20 or more yards (43) — and Marquise Brown’s ability to get open is a big reason why. Brown (65-825-6) averages 3.8 yards of separation per target, eighth-best among NFL players who have been targeted at least 50 times this year. But while the Ravens may be explosive, they’re not consistent. Only Devin Duvernay ranks in the top 50 league-wide in catch rate, and he’s the Ravens’ No. 5 target. Mark Andrews (64-811-5) is one of the most productive tight ends in football. Miles Boykin is doubtful with a finger injury.

Browns cornerback Denzel Ward was marvelous against the Ravens two weeks ago, picking off Jackson and allowing a microscopic 2.8 yards per target. But that shouldn’t be a surprise. Ward ranks 26th in the NFL in passer rating against (66.3). He’s under contract through 2022 on the fifth-year option, but the Browns would be wise to lock him down long-term this offseason. He might barely see a ball thrown his way Sunday. His running mate, Greg Newsome II, is out with a concussion. That means we’ll presumably see much more of Greedy Williams — who is 33rd among all NFL players in completion percentage allowed (54.8% — and Troy Hill.

Advantage: Push

Ravens offensive line vs. Browns defensive front

The Ravens offensive line right now is simply is not good enough to win a championship. Jackson has had his issues, for sure, but it doesn’t help that he’s been pressured on 22.4% of his dropbacks and was sacked 7 times by the Steelers. While ESPN has Baltimore’s pass-blocking win rate (63%) at No. 11 league-wide, the line’s adjusted sack rate (8.8%) is the third-worst in football. What’s more, the Ravens rank 29th in adjusted line rushing yards (3.7). We say this every week, but it doesn’t make it any less salient: The Ravens really miss Ronnie Stanley.

Myles Garrett just might be the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year. He’s second to only T.J. Watt with 14 sacks and fourth with 15 tackles for loss. Garrett also has a staggering 28 quarterback hits. Here’s what’s wild: he’s basically doing it on his own. Yes, Jadeveon Clowney has 13 hits and 8 TFLs, but no Browns player other than Garrett has even 4 sacks. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah deserves far more attention for his coverage ability than he’s gotten. Opposing quarterbacks have a rating of just 60.0 when targeting JOK this year — best among all NFL linebackers through Week 13.

Advantage: Browns

Cleveland Browns offense vs. Baltimore Ravens defense

Cleveland’s offense is the funhouse mirror version of its defense. The Browns have scored more than 17 points just once in the last seven games, but that one time was when they lit up the Bengals for 41. The last time out, the Browns didn’t reach the red zone once and the Ravens held them to 262 yards and 4.6 yards per play in a frustrating loss. Cleveland’s season rankings are still solid: 12th in yards per play (5.7), 14th in scoring offense (21.2), and 16th in offensive EPA per play (0.03).

Wink Martindale needs to get things tightened up after the way his defense laid down against the Steelers Sunday. Pittsburgh put up 17 points in the fourth quarter to rally past Baltimore on scoring drives of 78, 50, and 59 yards. That came after Baltimore forced punts on five of the Steelers’ first six drives. Overall, the Ravens rank 31st in yards per play (6.0), but first on third downs (31.5%) and red zone (44.8%). It’s a weird paradox, but it’s the only reason they’re ninth in points allowed (21.7).

Baker Mayfield vs. Ravens defense

The bye can only have helped the ailing Baker Mayfield, who has been dreadful the last three weeks. Mayfield’s completion percentage (50.6), passer rating (65.1), and yards-per-attempt average (5.7) over the last three games are devastating. “We have to be better overall,” Mayfield said this week. “If we don’t capitalize on their mistakes, they’re going to capitalize on ours. … We still have everything in front of us, but now it’s crunch time.”

Baltimore ranks 24th in EPA per dropback (0.12), 30th in yards per pass (7.6) and interception rate (1.2%), and 31st in pass defense (272.4). And those rankings really don’t reflect how bad the pass defense is now that cornerback Marlon Humphrey is out for the season with a torn pec. The Ravens’ pass defense was so bad in Week 13 it made Ben Roethlisberger of 2021 look like Ben Roethlisberger of 2018.

Advantage: Push

Browns weapons vs. Ravens defensive backs

The Browns prepared for the Ravens expecting not to have tight end David Njoku, who went on the reserve/COVID-19 list this week. That’s bad news, especially since Njoku leads the Browns in receiving yards (407) and touchdowns (3) and is third on the team in catches (27). Despite missing four games, Jarvis Landry leads the Browns in targets (52) but has yet to reach the end zone. Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb combined for 36 rushing yards on 15 carries against the Ravens in Week 12. That cannot happen again if the Browns want to have any hope of winning.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh explained that he went for two at the end of regulation against the Steelers because “we were pretty much out of corners at that point in time.” He wasn’t kidding. Defensive backs Marcus Peters and DeShon Elliott were already out for the year and Anthony Averett, Tavon Young, and Jimmy Smith were all dealing with some sort of medical issue. Brandon Stephens will probably play every snap for the Ravens the rest of the way, and that’s not a good thing. His passer rating against this year is 145.0.

Advantage: Browns

Browns offensive line vs. Ravens front seven

Life after Jack Conklin begins Sunday. Conklin is out for the season with a knee injury, and the Browns have a decision to make at right tackle: Blake Hance or James Hudson. Cleveland has the NFL’s best pass-block rate (69%) per ESPN despite having the NFL’s fourth-worst sack rate (9.4%) per Football Outsiders. What gives? Mayfield could get the ball out quicker (his average pocket time, 2.4 seconds, ranks ninth among qualifying QBs), but the Browns still rank 28th in adjusted sack rate (8.5%). It’s truly bizarre. What isn’t debatable: The Browns can run block. Only the Colts average more per carry (5.1).

Calais Campbell made an impact in his return from a concussion, recording a sack and 2 quarterback hits in Week 13. That’ll help a Ravens pass rush led by Tyus Bowser (5.5 sacks, 13 hits), Odafe Oweh (5.0, 13), and Justin Houston (4.0 and 16). The Ravens are good at getting to the quarterback (10th in pass-rush win rate) and good at stopping the run (fifth in yards per rush allowed at 4.0).

Advantage: Push

Betting line and game prediction

Ravens vs. Browns Prediction: Browns 24, Ravens 20

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