OWINGS MILLS – The weather is cold, the ground is hard and unforgiving and harsh elements tend to fall from the sky.
It’s December, the time of year when football teams with brute strength, unrelenting will and a capacity to run the football and play stingy defense tend to thrive.
The Baltimore Ravens are one of those teams as they demonstrated again during a 24-10 road victory Sunday where they stomped all over the last-place Cleveland Browns as running back Ray Rice rushed for a career-high 204 yards and the defense sacked quarterback Colt McCoy three times.
“That’s December football,” center Matt Birk said. “You have to run the ball well in order to win and we were able to do that. It was that kind of game.”
Since coach John Harbaugh’s arrival in 2008, the Ravens have won 9 of 13 December games.
And the Ravens have been the kings of the later portion of the season with a 24-9 combined mark in November, December and January for a .727 winning percentage that ranks above the New England Patriots (.719) and the Atlanta Falcons and Indianapolis Colts, who both own a .697 mark.
With a physical running game, the third-ranked defense overall and the second-best run defense in the NFL, the Ravens are well-suited for this time of year.
“I think we have always just had good teams,” Harbaugh said. “We play good defense. We have been able to run the ball. We’d believe that everything we do is built for December. We are trying to be our best in December and January.
“The whole program is organized that way. I think our players understand that, and they begin to think that way. So, we try to improve throughout the course of the season in every area and be at our best this time of year.”
By design on a sloppy field on a cold, rainy day, the Ravens set a franchise record with 55 rushing attempts against the Browns.
As the Ravens (9-3) compete with the Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers and the Houston Texans for the top seed in the AFC, their late-season push has them on track for home-field playoff advantage provided they win their remaining four games.
“We’ve always played good December football,” Rice said. “We’re a December, January team. It would be great to play a playoff game in Baltimore. We just got to win football games from here on out. It’s clear-cut.”
While the Ravens dominated on offense with the running game, they shut down Browns star running back Peyton Hillis.
He rushed for only 45 yards on a dozen carries with a long run of nine yards.
“We believe in running the football, absolutely,” Harbaugh said. “We think you have to run the ball and stop the run to be the kind of physical football team we want to be.”
The Ravens only had quarterback Joe Flacco attempt 23 passes against the Browns.
After getting pass-happy and abandoning the run in losses to the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Seattle Seahawks, the Ravens are tilted more toward running the football now.
For the season, the Ravens have thrown 435 passes for 2,762 yards and 339 runs for 1,378 yards.
The Ravens aren’t necessarily done throwing the ball, though.
“The teams that are scoring the most points are the teams that are throwing the ball the most,” Harbaugh said. “But our objective here is not to score the most points, per se. It’s to score more points than our opponent on any given Sunday. That’s why we’re really not willing to sit here and say that we are a run-first outfit.”
The Ravens have never earned the top seed before in franchise history.
Due to their sweep of the Steelers, a win over the Texans an edge in common opponents over the Patriots, the Ravens are primed for a first-round bye and home playoff games throughout the postseason should they beat the winless Colts, the San Diego Chargers, Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals.
“In the month of December, it’s all about positioning ourselves for a playoff run,” fullback Vonta Leach said. “That’s all we talked about. We didn’t talk about letdowns. Obviously, we have had letdowns in the past after we came off big wins. We just know that it’s December and we wanted to come in here and establish ourselves and continue our winning streak.”
NOTE: Rice has been nominated for FedExGround NFL Player of the Week.