Ladies and gentlemen, it’s finally happening. The Cleveland Browns are actually going to field a competitive football team this season. For most of my life it has been the Ravens and Steelers (and sometimes the Bengals) duking it out for the AFC North division title. The Browns haven’t won a division title since their return to the league in 1999, but it appears that they have a shot this year. With both Baltimore and Cleveland in the playoff race, the NFL is finally getting the rivalry it has wanted since the Browns returned.
On paper, it makes sense that this could’ve been a great rivalry out of the gate with the two teams playing each other twice a year in the old AFC Central. Cleveland fans were still upset about how the late Art Modell moved the Browns, and Baltimore fans do love a good beef. It seemed like a rivalry made in heaven. There was just one problem: the “rivalry” was embarrassingly one-sided in favor of the Ravens.
The Ravens have gone 30-10 against the Browns since their return in 1999. This includes an 11-game win streak for the Ravens spanning from 2008-2013. Since John Harbaugh was hired, the Ravens have a 19-3 record against Cleveland. Since the Browns have returned to the league, the Ravens have used nine quarterbacks, while the Browns have had 30. The Ravens have outscored the Browns 927-528 in that time.
Moving on from these hilarious stats, these days, at least for the foreseeable future – the lopsidedness may be over.
Even though I am still not sold on the Cleveland defense that allowed the third most YPG in 2018 (393), there are too many talented players on the field for Cleveland to not in some way improve. Myles Garrett is one of the best defensive ends in the league and is coming off a 13.5-sack season, Denzel Ward is a Pro-Bowl corner, and now opposing quarterbacks will have to deal with not just Ward, but Greedy Williams on the other side of the field. The Browns addressed their defensive tackle problem by signing Sheldon Richardson and they got a strong outside linebacker in Olivier Vernon. There’s all this talent. If this talent comes to fruition this season, there could be trouble.
The talent that the Browns have on the offensive side of the ball is almost obscene. Baker Mayfield has been gift wrapped a bevy of weapons to work with on offense. Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, David Njoku, Nick Chubb, and Kareem Hunt when he returns from suspension. Apparently, having no players on your roster worth paying large amounts of money for years on end leads to great things, such as having about 78 million in cap space when John Dorsey took over as general manager. The Browns gave Mayfield the best chance to succeed and to avoid the dreaded “sophomore slump” by giving him one of the most talented offenses in the league.
If there is a weak spot on the Cleveland offense, it is the line. Last season, an average unit allowed Baker Mayfield and Tyrod Taylor to be sacked 38 times. Some of those were Baker’s fault, and while that number is not bad per se, it’s pretty average. The performance of the Browns o-line this season figures to remain the same or decline as the Browns traded their starting right guard Kevin Zeitler for Olivier Vernon to strengthen their front seven on defense. This could be dangerous for Mayfield, but the high-end talent on the rest of the Cleveland offense will help hide this flaw.
Combating this high-talent offense will be the defending number one defense in the league. Pieces may be gone from that unit, however the D-Line remains intact with Brandon Williams leading the way. Assuming a certain someone loses some weight, the big men up front should have no problems. Throw Earl Thomas into one of the league’s best secondaries, and the Ravens have a way to contain the Browns’ passing attack. Giving more reps to young linebackers Kenny Young and Tyus Bowser could help fill the holes that C.J. Mosley, Za’Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs left, and Matt Judon is still coming off the edge.
The Ravens have something in common with the Browns, as most of the offensive skill-position talent is young. The Ravens of course brought in two rookie WRs in Hollywood Brown and Miles Boykin, grabbed Justice Hill to accompany Gus Edwards at running back, and the talent at tight end has the trifecta of Hayden Hurst, Mark Andrews, and Nick Boyle. General Manager Eric DeCosta has also given his second-year QB the tools to succeed.
There is however, one slight question mark.
The Ravens’ o-line – as opposed to the Browns’ – figures to be better this season. Right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. will be starting Week 1, and left tackle Ronnie Stanley was a big part of a top-ten pass protection o-line last season. Marshal Yanda’s value needs no mention, and the left guard position may have new life with rookie Ben Powers, and Bradley Bozeman will compete for the starting center job.
When there are so many young faces looking to make names for themselves on both squads, great football is bound to be played. The TV marketing writes itself. Two young teams with two young quarterbacks going at it in the grittiest division in football twice a year.
Everything that makes a great rivalry is present. Both teams are young and hungry, the fan bases can’t stand each other, both defenses are hard-hitting, and both starting quarterbacks want to outdo the other. Throw in a few personalities on both defenses and this could shape up to be much like the Ravens-Steelers rivalry of the 2000’s.
And didn’t we all love that one Thursday or Sunday night out of the year when our scrappy boys in purple took on those Steelers on the national telecast?
Although we won’t be getting a prime time game against the Browns this year, I guarantee that it will happen next season. The Bengals are going to be in a rebuilding phase, and the Steelers are in for a rude awakening this season.
The AFC North will be the Ravens against the Browns, Baltimore against Cleveland, and I can’t wait to see how this matchup unfolds.