There isn't much that is pretty about the AFC North

The Ravens found a way to win but they will need to do more to go far in the postseason

CLEVELAND

Ravens coach John Harbaugh was trying to pay both team compliments when he said Sunday's game between the Ravens and the Cleveland Browns was just another typical AFC North game.

He was right in one sense: this game is a model for the division in 2012.

There are no dominating defenses anymore and every team seems to be searching for an offensive identity. The winning teams don't always find a way to win, but the losing teams usually do.

Welcome to the AFC North, where traditional favorites like the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers are trying to either reload or rebuild, and the regular weaklings continue to give games away.

The Ravens 25-15 win against the Browns was ugly, but there haven't been many pretty games for the Ravens this season. If you want style points or great action, go to the NFC.

"We've never been fancy," Ravens running back Ray Rice said. "We've never been a pretty kind of team. I think the way we are winning games is just the way we continue to win. We always find ourselves at the top at the end."

Well, not always. It didn't happen in Philadelphia or Houston. But it appears most games in the AFC North will be awful. In the past, Harbaugh might have called a Cleveland versus Baltimore game a war. On Sunday, he called it a fight. If it were two dogs involved, both of these teams would have been poodles.

"There are no homecoming opponents," Harbaugh said. "There are no pretties."

The Ravens haven't played a good all around game since their season opening 44-13 win against the Bengals. They're still 6-2 overall though, and it's no secret as to why they are winning.

The Ravens have had a lot of luck, they score touchdowns inside the red zone and hold the others to field goals and other teams have made more mistakes.

That formula won't get you to the Super Bowl, but it should be enough to win the AFC North.

There was a lot of hype leading into Sunday's game about how the Browns were getting better and ready to make a move within the division.

Where? How? And when?

Cleveland has gotten better, but they are still the sorry Browns. On a day when the Ravens went nearly 30 minutes without a first down, had no offensive rhythm in the second half and had nine penalties, the Browns still couldn't beat them because they were 0 for 5 as far as scoring touchdowns inside the red zone.

More importantly, the "new" Browns were as inept as the "old" Browns.

They had one touchdown called back in the fourth quarter because of an illegal formation. Despite having possessions in the second half that started on their own 49, 44, 46 and 43 yard lines, the Browns could net only six points as one of those drives ended in an interception and another in a punt.

Even on the Ravens game winning nine-play, 81-yard drive late in the fourth, the Browns were penalized twice, once for having 12 players on the field. They probably still don't know what happened on the two-point conversion pass in the fourth quarter when cornerback Joe Haden blitzed and no one picked up Anquan Boldin in the left corner of the end zone for the easy catch.

As you watch these games, it's become less entertaining and either more boring or comical. Take your pick. It's going to remain that way in the AFC North. Like Baltimore, Pittsburgh is showing its age on defense and even though the Steelers offensive line has gotten better, it's not to point where it was when Jerome Bettis was the starting running back.

The Bengals were expected to be a power this season, but that team is one of the NFL's greatest mysteries. Few teams can become as soft and disappear during a season like the Bengals.

That leaves only the Ravens. They are a 6-2 mess, a team with some serious issues. As expected, Harbaugh talked about how delighted he was to win Sunday. That was good surface talk.

Underneath, some things have to be eating at him. The Ravens keep committing penalties. Their starting cornerbacks still can't cover well, and the Ravens allowed 116 yards rushing.

The Ravens came out running the ball and jumped all over the Browns, but then Cleveland shut the running game down in the second half. Quarterback Joe Flacco didn't play as poorly on the road as he has done in previous games, but he was way too inconsistent.

At this point, the Ravens have enough playmakers and talent to win most games, and they'll get contributions from the poor teams like the Browns.

But the question is will this team improve enough to beat a Houston or an improved New England team in the postseason?

"We have lots to work on. We had lots to work on last week," Harbaugh said. "We are going to try to become a great football team. We're not there by any stretch."

mike.preston@baltsun.com

 
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