Analysis

Ravens overcome adversity (again) with ugly win over Browns to maintain lead in jumbled AFC North race

BALTIMORE -- The Baltimore Ravens have accepted who they are at this point in the season: a team that is going to walk by faith and an unwavering belief in each other, rather than by the traditional metrics used to determine success and failure in the NFL.

It's why on a night where they committed four turnovers, including three in a span of three-plus minutes in the second quarter, they never flinched or blinked. They just kept playing their game, absorbing body shots one minute but delivering haymakers in return.

Their 16-10 victory over the Cleveland Browns was neither artistic nor efficient. The Ravens were generous with the football, unable to hit on deep passes and hurt themselves with penalties, the worst of which was a false start on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line that forced them to settle for a field goal rather than go for the touchdown as planned.

But this is who they are: a team that neither embraces adversity nor runs from it. They will tell you they've had it hard all season, from losing their top three running backs and cornerback Marcus Peters out of the gate, to standout left tackle Ronnie Stanley undergoing season-ending ankle surgery in October, to star quarterback Lamar Jackson missing a road game because of illness.

But instead of complaining about having 19 players on injured reserve, Baltimore goes about its business and finds ways to win -- and arguably no victory was more important than Sunday night's because of the impact it could have had on the race for the AFC North title.

A loss would have left the Ravens tied with Cleveland and Cincinnati in the win column atop the division. However, turning back the Browns before a sellout crowd in M&T Bank Stadium left them in sole possession of first place at 8-3, a game ahead of the 7-4 Bengals. In the loss column, Baltimore is two games ahead of the Steelers (5-5-1) and three games ahead of the Browns (6-6).

That's critical because we've reached the point in the season where the finish line is a lot closer than the starting line, which means head-to-head divisional games will be more frequent. The NFL made the choice to alter its scheduling process 11 years ago to have the majority of divisional games take place in the final weeks. Consequently, the Ravens will play four of their final six within the AFC North; the Browns three of their final five, including each of the last two weeks; the Steelers three of their last six; and the Bengals two of the final six.

Said another way: Everyone is still in the running to win the division, particularly when we've already had the Ravens beat the Browns, who routed the Bengals, who swept the Steelers and thumped the Ravens earlier in the year.

Said another way: Assume nothing, although some teams are clearly playing better than others.

Baltimore Ravens
8-3 · 1st in AFC North

They benefit from the fact that there are no style points in the NFL. The uglier the game, the more muck-ridden the conditions, the more they seem to like it. They excel at complementary football, such as Sunday night when the defense forced two takeaways and surrendered just three points off the four interceptions Jackson threw.


Turnovers aside, Jackson is the rare talent who can turn any negative into a positive with his ability to make plays off script. On the Ravens' lone touchdown, most quarterbacks would have been sacked by Jadeveon Clowney; however, Jackson was agile enough to avoid the pressure, retreat into space, then loft a pass to the end zone for tight end Mark Andrews just as end Myles Garrett was closing in.


"He's a great player," said Browns coach Kevin Stefanski. "He makes plays like that. You've got to try and find a way to get him on the ground; and you know you've got to cover your guy for a very long time when you're playing him."


The Browns were in Cover 0 on the touchdown, meaning it was man coverage with an all-out blitz. Cornerback Denzel Ward said he was expecting the ball to come out quickly because of the pressure that typically comes from such a call, so he broke on an underneath route. It proved fatal because the rush never arrived due to Jackson's ability to evade it and find space.

Cincinnati Bengals
7-4 · 2nd in AFC North

Strange as it sounds, Cincinnati could be the biggest threat to win the division. Yeah, yeah -- I know the Bengals have long been the very definition of ineptitude; that, entering the 2021 campaign, they'd had five consecutive losing seasons with finishes in the bottom half of the division every year, including last place over the past three.


They've been so bad they had lost 11 in a row and 14 of 15, including the postseason, to the Steelers before beating them late last season. Some thought that victory was a fluke, but in hindsight, it should have been considered foreshadowing because the Bengals have now won three in a row against Pittsburgh for the first time in 31 years, with Sunday's 41-10 beatdown the latest chapter. They have a dynamic QB-wideout combination in Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase; one of the league's top backs in Joe Mixon, who quietly has been on a tear; and a defense that excels at getting after the quarterback and has been feasting on turnovers.


Equally notable is what they did to the Ravens earlier this season, routing them 41-17 on Oct. 24. They appeared to be regressing to the mean following that game, losing two in a row and surrendering at least 34 in each. But they have been dominant in two wins since returning from their bye, routing the Raiders, 32-13, and shutting down the Steelers.

Cleveland Browns
6-6 · 3rd in AFC North

There was a clear sense of frustration and disappointment Sunday night following the loss in Baltimore. For the sixth time in seven games, the offense failed to score more than 17 points -- and against the Ravens, it had no answers for the mixture of coverages it saw. Baker Mayfield said he felt as good physically as he has in some time, but it wasn't evident in his performance. More troubling: The Browns' high-powered rushing game managed just 40 yards on 17 carries.


Cleveland is hoping that history can repeat itself. Last season, it lost two of three going into its bye, then won six of its final eight to advance to the playoffs. The Browns will be off this week, then return to face the Ravens again, followed by games against the Raiders and Packers before closing out with divisional matchups against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

Pittsburgh Steelers
5-5-1 · 4th in AFC North

Of all the teams in the division, the Steelers are the one trending furthest in the wrong direction. On Sunday, they were spanked by the Bengals, 41-10.


Losses are one thing; embarrassments are another. Sunday marked the second consecutive week the Steelers were embarrassed on some level. The previous week, they fell behind big against the Chargers before a frantic fourth-quarterback comeback fell short.


Against the Bengals, there was never any hint of a rally. Cincinnati had nearly as many yards in the first half (261) as it did in the entire game (268) against the Steelers earlier this season. Burrow was 14-of-16 for 154 yards and a touchdown over the first two quarters, and Mixon had 20 carries for a score and 117 yards, a career-high for a first half. The Bengals also had 31 points at the half, seven more than they scored overall in their win at Pittsburgh.


The 31-point loss tied for the largest of the Mike Tomlin era and extended the Steelers' winless streak to three weeks. Several weeks ago, they appeared to be surging, winning four in a row after a 1-3 start. But they have not won since, tying the winless Lions before falling to the Chargers and Bengals.


"We stunk it up today," Tomlin said.


Those words could have been reserved for his defense last week after it surrendered 27 points through three quarters. On Sunday, they applied to the entire team, but particularly the defense, which has been gashed in back-to-back games. That reality is more significant than the inconsistencies on offense because Pittsburgh has always relied on that unit for the foundation of its success. However, Sunday was the second consecutive week in which it gave up 41 points.


"We can't keep playing like this," said linebacker T.J. Watt, who returned after missing the previous game. "It's absolutely embarrassing."

It's too early to draw conclusions on how the division will play out. At the same time, it's getting late for the Browns and Steelers. That becomes more obvious the closer we get to the finish line.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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