(CBS Baltimore) — The Baltimore Ravens (12-2) have the inside track on home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Led by MVP candidate and breakout star Lamar Jackson, the Ravens have become the team to beat down the homestretch. The Cleveland Browns (6-8) are barely holding on to their last shred of playoff hope. The Browns haven’t really improved on their almost-.500 2018, and Baker Mayfield hasn’t emerged as the high-end starter last season portended. But the team and Mayfield have shown flashes.
Both of these AFC North rivals have something to play for in their Week 16 matchup. The Ravens need to keep their foot on the gas to maintain home-field advantage. The Browns will need to string together a more complete game to have any shot at playing in January. As an added bonus, each team would certainly enjoy spoiling the other’s holiday season with a late December loss.
Everyone suspected the Ravens could improve on last season’s 10-6 record and first-round playoff exit. Their 12 wins so far this season ensure the first, and a likely first-round bye would accomplish the second. But that’s just part of the story and doesn’t explain how they got here, riding a 10-game win streak and on the cusp of the franchise’s first-ever top seed in the playoffs.
Jackson ended last season as an electrifying athlete who needed to develop into a legitimate NFL quarterback. The Ravens ran a stripped-down passing attack that limited his exposure to mistakes but also limited his chances for success. The Ravens’s success going into the 2019 season depended on his development as a passer.
Clearly Jackson, an NFL offensive MVP candidate, has made great strides. He’s coming off an absurd five-touchdown performance against the New York Jets. Scarier still, it was Jackson’s third five-touchdown game of the season. The first came against the Miami Dolphins in Week 1; the second happened against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 12. He has 33 TD passes total so far.
Jackson isn’t the league’s most prolific passer in terms of yardage. The Ravens average only 207.6 yards passing per game, which puts them in the bottom half of teams by that measure. But their running game is by far the best in the NFL, with an average of 202.1 yards per game, more than 50 yards better than the next highest team. And Jackson has flourished in a system that allows him to read defenses and react.
For all the talk about the Ravens offense, their defense has quietly become an asset rather than a liability. They allow 314.3 yards per game, sixth best in the league, and 18.4 points, fourth best on the season. But over the course of their 10-game win streak, the Ravens defense has been in the best in football. In that time, they’ve held the Seattle Seahawks, Houston Texans, Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers each to under 20 points.
The last team to beat the Ravens, of course, was the Browns. (And don’t think both teams aren’t using that game as motivation.) But since their last meeting, these teams’ seasons have diverged. The then 2-2 Browns, have since won four games and lost six. The win over the team that would become the NFL’s best, became a watershed moment, though not in the way any teams hopes. Cleveland dropped their next four games.
Losing to some of the league’s best teams, including the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks, showed that these Browns weren’t really ready for prime-time. Baker Mayfield, Jackson’s 2018 NFL Draft-mate, proved to be incapable of leading the Browns out of mediocrity. Any success the offense had this season seemed to be paired with failure. Look no further than Mayfield’s 17 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions on the season.
Odell Beckham Jr. has let it be known that he is not pleased, though it seems like the prima donna wide receiver wants to stay in Cleveland. The Browns should not be pleased either, given that the elite receiver has posted less than elite numbers — 67 catches, 910 yards, two touchdowns.
Through it all, Nick Chubb has been a nice surprise though. The Browns running back leads the league in yards per game (100.6), and is the only back in the league averaging 100-plus yards. Whether that will be enough in a one-dimensional offense facing one of the league’s best defenses is another story.
As NFL On CBS sideline reporter Evan Washburn recently noted about Cleveland, “as dysfunctional as it appears right now, you never know at any moment if all those pieces could decide to come together and have a day. Maybe it’s a quarter. Maybe it’s just half a quarter, and that is all they will need to keep it close or steal a win from Baltimore,” said Washburn. “I think that is at the forefront of the Ravens mind. I know for a fact that the way they felt after that Week 4 loss was embarrassed. And that’s in the front of how they are approaching this rematch.”
Browns coach Freddy Kichens could be playing for his job. Mayfield may be as well. But don’t expect any sympathy from a Ravens team looking to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Ravens play the Browns Sunday @ 1 p.m. ET on CBS.