The 8-3 Ravens will get an opportunity to remove a certain L-word from our vocabulary on Sunday when they play the 4-7 Cleveland Browns. The Ravens are coming off of a pair of critical, decisive victories against quality opponents, but unlike their letdowns earlier this season, they have had 10 days to prepare for this challenge.
Here are five storylines to follow on Sunday as the Ravens play the Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium:
1. Getting off to a fast start: After the loss to the Seattle Seahawks a few weeks back, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said that each of the team’s letdown losses should stand by itself. But the similarities are apparent: the Ravens were coming down from an emotional high against a lesser opponent with a solid defense, a respectable running game and, of course, the home field. Another trend from those losses was slow starts. If the Ravens start fast, avoid three-and-outs and set the tone early, they should be able to avoid another letdown. But if they let the Browns hang around in the first half, they could be in for another long, frustrating afternoon.
2. Challenging Colt McCoy: The Browns quarterback played the Ravens once in his rookie season last year, and he was picked off three times by the Ravens. Ed Reed had two of those interceptions. McCoy has done a solid job protecting the football this season. He has thrown eight interceptions and lost two fumbles. But if the Ravens get after the quarterback like they did against the San Francisco 49ers, McCoy will make mistakes.
3. An opportunity for Ray Rice: Another trend in the letdown losses was how the Ravens did not utilize their star back. After Rice got five carries in the loss to Seattle, some of his teammates were critical of the pass-first strategy. Has offensive coordinator Cam Cameron learned a lesson? It will be cold in Cleveland, and rain and wind could be an issue. Running the ball makes sense, especially against the NFL’s 29th-ranked run defense.
4. The “Madden” cover boy is back: Peyton Hillis has had a disappointing 2011 after a breakout season a year ago. He missed a month and a half with a hamstring injury (and strep throat, allegedly) before returning to the field last weekend. His physical running style could give the Ravens problems, especially if Ray Lewis is again inactive, as is expected. If the Ravens wrap up Hillis so he doesn’t break through tackles, they should be OK.
5. The Browns are Flacco’s favorite: Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has more wins against the Browns (six) than he does against any other team. He has never lost to the Browns. In those games, he completed 68 percent of his passes and had a 101.9 passer rating. The Browns enter Sunday’s game first in the NFL in pass defense, but that stat is misleading because teams run all over them. They also have just six interceptions.