CLEVELAND – An extremely tense atmosphere surrounds this lackluster Monday night game between the reeling Baltimore Ravens and the dysfunctional Cleveland Browns.
Having lost four of their past five football games, the Ravens (4-4) can’t afford another misstep tonight during this uninviting nationally televised contest.
An upset loss to the hapless Browns (1-7) would deliver a crippling blow to the Ravens’ increasingly grim playoff outlook.
Between notoriously slow starts, a secondary so prone to pass interference penalties that the team leads the league in penalty yardage, the chronic struggles of kicker Steve Hauschka in the clutch and a defense that’s no longer intimidating quality opponents, the downward spiral has pushed the Ravens to the brink of irrelevance in the playoff hunt.
There’s little room left for error, especially considering all of the demanding remaining games on the schedule, including the Indianapolis Colts next week and two matchups with the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Ravens will probably need to win six of eight games in order to have a legitimate shot at a wild-card playoff berth since the Cincinnati Bengals (7-2) are firmly in control of the AFC North after sweeping Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
This is definitely a must-win game as the Ravens attempt to sweep the Browns.
“We’ve got urgency just because of our issues and problems,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “The good thing is that we have three division games left, two against the Steelers and one against the Browns. We have an opportunity, and we’ll have to play really well in all these games if we’re going to have a chance at winning them.
“The Browns had a bye week, so they’ve had two weeks to get ready for us. We have our own issues and problems. We’re excited to play on Monday night and going to Cleveland because it’s a great atmosphere.”
Actually, it’s a toxic environment.
The Browns dismissed general manager George Kokinis under mysterious circumstances, and the former Ravens executive is pursuing legal action.
Former Ravens running back Jamal Lewis derided taskmaster coach Eric Mangini’s demanding approach to practice, making a case that Mangini is tiring out his players in the days leading up to kickoff.
And owner Randy Lerner is looking for yet another personnel man to try to fix this mess. Jobs are on the line.
On the field, the Browns are just as aimless as they are in the board room.
They rank last in the NFL in defense, allowing 409.1 yards of total offense per contest.
Their offense ranks 31st in the league having scored just five touchdowns.
There are no dangerous playmakers on offense with Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow shipped out of town.
Defensively, the only recognizable players are nose guard Shaun “Big Baby” Rogers and outside linebacker Kamerion Wembley.
So, the Browns could provide the ideal antidote to cure the Ravens’ ills.
And the Ravens are determined to snap their five-game losing streak in Monday night games, a span that dates back to a 48-3 win over the Green Bay Packers back in 2005 as Kyle Boller strangely outdueled Brett Favre.
“That’s disturbing,” outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “That’s real disturbing. I just hope that doesn’t haunt us. I didn’t even know that. Hopefully, the streak ends Monday.”
In order to do so, the Ravens will need to get off to better starts than how they’ve been outscored 28-3 in the first quarter of the past three games.
And the Ravens will need a stronger pass rush, better pass coverage and quarterback Joe Flacco getting into a rhythm earlier in the game.
With the exception of a dominant win over the Denver Broncos, the Ravens have had their problems in losses to the New England Patriots, Bengals and Minnesota Vikings before losing to Cincinnati for a second time last week. They’ve lost those games by a combined total of 21 points.
"We don’t have a macro answer," Harbaugh said. "We look at all those things in-house. Whatever issues you have football-wise, like any team you try to address them and become better.
"We lost in the last 30 seconds to New England. We lost in the last two seconds to Minnesota. We had the lead within a minute against Cincinnati at home and we let them go down and score, and then we got hammered last week."
Considering how one-sided the Ravens’ 34-3 rout was over the Browns with four interceptions during the first meeting in Baltimore earlier this season, this game is unlikely to come down to a Hauschka pressure field goal.
The Ravens sent quarterback Brady Quinn to the bench in the last game, and now he’s back having been reinstated as the starter over Derek Anderson.
It’s unlikely that it was coincidental that the Browns made sure Quinn was unable to trigger a playing-time incentive clause that could have earned him an additional $10.9 million.
The Ravens lead the series 14-7 and have won three consecutive games over Cleveland since being swept back in 2007.
If there’s one thing the Ravens can probable feel safe about, it’s the benchmark of being better than the Browns.
“Inside the locker room, we’re just as confident as ever,” tight end Todd Heap said. “We know what type of team we are. We know that we have a lot of strengths.
“Losing games early, it places more importance on every single game. There’s a lot less room for error. We can’t afford to go through any stretches of the three-game losses. We just can’t afford that anymore.”
For the second half to mean something, the Ravens will need to play with a greater sense of urgency than the flatness they displayed last week in Cincinnati.
Losing to the Browns would be a complete embarrassment.
“We have a chance to have a good season from where we’re at, but we have to have a good second half and win a bunch of games,” Harbaugh said. “It’s not a great spot to be .500 and try to do that from.”
Three teams over the past three seasons have gotten off to a 4-4 start and made the playoffs.
So, it’s not impossible.
“I’m very optimistic,” veteran wide receiver Derrick Mason said. “We look forward to the challenge that is presented to us. It’s going to really test our character moving forward.
“Are we going to give in or are we going to continue to fight as a team. I believe we are going to continue to fight.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.