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Cleveland Browns vs. Baltimore Ravens: Matchups, prediction for banged-up AFC North rivalry

The Cleveland Browns vs. Baltimore Ravens is exactly what we want in a prime-time game: a division rivalry between potential playoff teams.

This Cleveland Browns vs. Baltimore Ravens game is one I had circled on my calendar when the NFL schedule dropped. The AFC North rivalry is the best in the league. It’s not just the Browns and Ravens, either. The entire division still feels like an old-school, bare-knuckle boxing league in which everyone involved would take each fight to the death if not for the referees.

Cleveland Browns offense vs. Baltimore Ravens defense

The Browns offense is not good, which is a surprise considering their offensive line and ability to run the ball efficiently. It really should only take average quarterback play to keep this offense afloat, but they’re not currently getting that.

The Ravens defense is excellent. They’re top five in both dropback and rushing success rate, but two things make their passing efficiency suffer. Their aggressive nature can lead to big plays, and they’ve only mustered 5 interceptions this season. Only one team has generated fewer turnovers this season.

When we look at things from a more traditional perspective, the dichotomy of the Ravens’ defense becomes even more evident. They rank 30th in passing yards allowed per play and are 31st in yards per play allowed overall. But they’re first in the red zone, and they’re first on third down.

Baker Mayfield vs. Ravens defense

Baker Mayfield is bad right now. It’s heroic of him to play through the scroll of injuries he’s sustained throughout the season, but he’s hurting his team. None of what you just read is meant to say, “he is bad.”

I’m not sure we know Mayfield’s true ability because he’s endlessly banged up. Nevertheless, he’s currently a detriment. And if you can’t acknowledge that, you’re not looking at the situation objectively.

I don’t expect Baltimore’s defense to have many issues defending Cleveland’s group of weapons. With Odell Beckham Jr. gone, and Donovan Peoples-Jones and Anthony Schwartz hobbled, the Browns are trotting out Rashard Higgins, Jarvis Landry, and someone called Ja’Marcus Bradley.

It’s tough to feel good about this matchup for the Browns with limited weapons available for an already limited QB.

Advantage: Ravens

Browns skill position players vs. Ravens secondary

If Peoples-Jones and Schwartz cannot play Sunday, this will be a quick matchup preview. The Browns don’t have much on the outside, and Marlon Humphrey exists and is still unbelievable despite his performance against Ja’Marr Chase a few weeks ago.

Landry is a fine receiver, especially in the role in which Cleveland uses him, but he’s not dynamic. Higgins is an adequate WR4, but there’s a reason many receivers have come through Cleveland without sustaining success.

Still, the Ravens might be forced to turn to their third-string outside cornerback in second-year player Chris Westry, a 6’4″ DB that doesn’t seem like a great fit for defensive coordinator Wink Martindale’s Cover 1-heavy coverage scheme. Oh, and both Westry and Anthony Averett — whom he might replace —  are both fighting through thigh injuries.

Advantage: Browns

Browns offensive line vs. Ravens defensive front

The Browns’ offensive line was one of the biggest reasons I believed this team was the favorite in the AFC North heading into the season. They’re strong across all five spots. From Jedrick Wills Jr. on the left to Jack Conklin on the right, the Browns dominate up front. They’re a unit that is favored in any matchup across the league.

The Ravens don’t struggle on their defensive front, either. Calais Campbell is somehow still a stud at 36 years old. Justin Madubuike is developing into a fine interior defender. The duo of Justin Houston and Tyus Bowser makes for a stout group of edge defenders. Then, rookie pass rusher Odafe Oweh pops in to run off the edge with the speed of one of the fastest defensive backs in the league.

Advantage: Browns

Baltimore Ravens offense vs. Cleveland Browns defense

It has been a tale of two halves for the Ravens. Their offense started off strong, mainly through the air. But over the past month, the entire offense has looked like a shell of itself. They rank 20th in expected points added per play (EPA) and 13th in DVOA, Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric.

Lamar Jackson was on an MVP pace, but losing Ronnie Stanley from an already struggling offensive line is not a recipe for success. The interior may survive, but the tackles are a massive liability at this point.

That is particularly scary against the Browns, but we’ll get to that. Cleveland might have one of the best conglomerations of individual talent in the NFL, but they simply can’t get the job done consistently. Despite being seventh in success rate defensively, they’re 26th in EPA/play.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but DVOA tells a similarly grim story to EPA. They’re 14th in points per game, and their yards-per-play averages are sufficient. Their struggles come on third down and in the red zone, where they do not force enough field goals.

Lamar Jackson vs. Browns defense

Jackson isn’t fair against any defense. He’s practically indefensible on his own. This is a team sport, and he has 10 other teammates that aren’t unicorn athletes surrounding him. So, Jackson himself is a mismatch against any and every defense that opposes him.

In his six games against Cleveland, he’s 4-2, and his passing numbers are quite good. But each team in each season is unique, and this Browns squad is very different. However, even with the added names, Jackson’s legs create a mismatch that isn’t easily defended.

Advantage: Ravens

Ravens skill position players vs. Browns secondary

Thigh injuries are rampant on the Ravens roster right now. Marquise Brown has a thigh issue that has him questionable for Sunday night. Still, 2021 has brought reinforcements to Baltimore’s receiving corps. No longer is it completely devoid of talent.

Rashod Bateman has flashed in limited reps as a rookie, and Sammy Watkins has always been a good receiver when healthy. They also have tight end Mark Andrews, who is an excellent weapon in the passing attack.

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Meanwhile, the Browns boast one of the most talented secondary units in the league. Denzel Ward and Greg Newsome form an outstanding outside duo. Greedy Williams, Ronnie Harrison, Grant Delpit, and John Johnson III make for an outrageous group. And that’s ignoring Troy Hill, who is questionable with a neck injury.

But as with any “super team”, it sometimes seems like they struggle to play together as a whole.

Advantage: Push

Ravens offensive line vs. Browns defensive front

The Browns have Myles Garrett, and the Ravens do not have Stanley to slow him down. It really could be that simple, but there is always more to discuss.

Jadeveon Clowney, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, and Anthony Walker make for some good complements to Garrett. The Ravens could take advantage of the Browns interior, but the linebacker play behind helps make up for that deficiency, and the two defensive ends are good run defenders.

The rest of Baltimore’s offensive line can survive, but they probably won’t bully the Browns.

Advantage: Browns

Betting line and game prediction

The Baltimore Ravens vs. Cleveland Browns Sunday Night Football spread favors the Ravens by 3.5 points at home.

Betting on the NFL this season seems like an exercise in futility. Whatever we seem to think should happen will not. For instance, we probably look at how Mayfield is playing and think, “if the Browns cover, it’s probably going to be a low-scoring affair.”

And just for having that somewhat educated thought, the football gods will strike us down, and Cleveland will win 41-30. The National Football League is toying with us. But my official prediction is that the Browns can actually make some noise and win this game against the banged-up Ravens. It all comes down to how their QB plays.

Browns vs. Ravens Prediction: Browns 27, Ravens 24

Dalton Miller is the Lead NFL Analyst at Pro Football Network. You can read more of his work here and follow him @daltonbmiller on Twitter and Twitch

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