There’s been a buzz around Cleveland this week that Monday night’s game against the Ravens is one of the biggest in franchise history.
Indeed, the Browns are on the verge of ending an 18-year playoff drought. They can edge closer to that goal while putting a serious dent in the Ravens’ postseason chances.
It’s a reversal of roles for the organizations.
Instead of Cleveland looking to overtake Baltimore in the AFC North standings, the Browns are looking down at the Ravens in the division. Nonetheless, Baltimore is 2.5-point favorites, which might provide Cleveland with even more motivation.
“Honestly, when you’re in the position that we were in say last year or other years, it feels like a must-win then, too, because there are other things that you’re trying to achieve,” coach John Harbaugh said. “You’re trying to put yourself in position for whatever it might be, in terms of the playoffs and things like that.”
The Ravens are 7-5 and might need to win their remaining four games to make the playoffs. The Browns are 9-3 and have a bigger margin for error.
But this game is about much more than wins and losses.
The Browns have a chance to exorcise some of the demons of losing their team to Baltimore. It’s almost equivalent to Baltimore losing the Colts to Indianapolis. The difference is Cleveland was awarded an expansion franchise, while Baltimore was not given the same courtesy and was forced to lure an existing organization to the city, much to the chagrin of the rest of the NFL.
The Ravens dismantled the Browns 38-7 in the regular-season opener. Neither side is putting much stock in that game because of the adjustments and improvements Cleveland coach Kevin Stefanski has made in the following weeks.
The game features the NFL top rushing offenses. Baltimore is ranked No. 1 with 169 yards per game, followed by Cleveland with 157.8. The Ravens can rotate four running backs — J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, Mark Ingram, and Justice Hill — while the Browns might have the best one-two punch in the league with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
Stefanski has also worked wonders with Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, who has thrown for 2,442 yards with 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He has performed especially well in the play-action passing attack.
“I see that he’s another one who’s starting to get the ball out quicker, and he’s had success doing it,” Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale said. “Now, he’ll still create plays like he always has, but I just think this offense … They’ve done a nice job of marrying Kevin Stefanski’s offense with Baker Mayfield and his strengths. That’s what you’re seeing jump off the tape. He’s taking care of the ball better. He’s not trying to force things. He’s done a nice job of running this offense.”
The Ravens should be close to fully healthy for the game. The biggest question mark is defensive end Calais Campbell, who missed the entire week of practice with a calf injury and is listed as questionable.
The stakes are high for both teams.
“Really, no matter what circumstance you’re in, you look at every game as a must-win,” Harbaugh said. “So, I always get kind of … People say, ‘Is it a must-win?’ You have to say, ‘What do you mean by that?’ Every week is a must-win in the National Football League.
“You only get to play 16 games, and they all really matter. Any one of those games … If we went back, that we hadn’t won, or games that we didn’t win that we would’ve won, would have pretty dramatically changed our circumstance at this point. So, we kind of look at every game like it’s a must-win, and we try to approach it that way.”
This game will certainly be no different.