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Mike Preston: The Browns are better than a year ago, but so are the Ravens

The Cleveland Browns are a different team compared with a year ago. But so are the Ravens, compared with the team that was eliminated from the 2017 playoff race with a season-ending loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh has tried to not spend much time this week talking about the last-minute defeat to the Bengals, and that makes sense because this is a new year and team.

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This Ravens team has an offensive identity and the No. 1-ranked defense. The Ravens drafted a large rookie class to put them over the proverbial hump with youngsters such as offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr., tight ends Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst, quarterback Lamar Jackson and running back Gus Edwards.

But the biggest reason the Ravens are favored to win Sunday is what Harbaugh is trying to avoid talking about: It’s hard to believe the Ravens could be eliminated in the last game of the year by another AFC North rival again.

That Cincinnati loss is stuck in the minds of Ravens players and is nearly impossible to forget. Competitors will often remember heartbreaking defeats as much as great victories, because in those wins there is a sense of redemption.

In losses, there are no complete comeback attempts, but the Ravens get a chance for a redo Sunday against the Browns.

“We all have our own motivation,” Ravens cornerback Brandon Carr said. “I only have a few playoff games in my 11 years, so I have a lot of added motivation with that. But definitely, last year doesn’t sit well with us. We had a prime opportunity to extend our season, and we failed at it. We didn’t finish the job, so that’s why this year, the art of finish is big for us. Just finding ways to win this game by any means necessary, emptying your tank, giving it your all and then we’ll reload for next week once we get there.”

“When we got brought in here, it was something that was talked about,” Andrews said of the loss to the Bengals last season. “It’s been talked about this whole time from players to coaches. It’s something that’s on everyone’s mind. We’re well aware of what happened last year. There are a lot of hungry guys in this locker room.”

Rookies have played a large part in the team’s success. Andrews is the deep threat the Ravens haven’t had in years at tight end. Along with Hurst, the team’s top pick, the Ravens can go with two tight ends to balance up defenses and get mismatches outside with No. 3 cornerbacks and safeties.

Along with slot receiver Willie Snead IV, the Ravens have given Jackson, another first-round pick, a comfort zone of throwing safe passes inside the middle of the field.

Jackson has not only given the Ravens energy but an offensive identity. The Ravens had one under previous offensive coordinators Cam Cameron, Jim Caldwell and Gary Kubiak because they wanted to be balanced and hold starting quarterback Joe Flacco to 30 to 35 passes a game.

But in recent years until Flacco was hurt in the second game against the Pittsburgh Steelers this season, the Ravens became too pass-happy. Now with Jackson, the Ravens have rushed for more than 150 yards in six straight games with Jackson gaining 466.

It’s not an ideal situation to have your starting quarterback with 127 rushing attempts in a season, but the Ravens need to win now. They’ll worry about Jackson’s troubling throwing mechanics and accuracy in the offseason.

“In our coaching world, there’s a lot of respect out there on what a good job they have done, and there’s a little bit of a different style of play,” Cleveland interim coach Gregg Williams said. “But, and I told some of our guys, it reminds me of some of the old days in the league and how people controlled the line of scrimmage and the run game, and then obviously we have some of the spread stuff that colleges are doing, too.

“But I think they’ve done a very good job of how they’re running the ball, and we have to do a good job on how we play defense.”

Williams should know about how to slow the Ravens’ running game. Before becoming Cleveland’s head coach Oct. 29, he had spent 17 seasons as one of the NFL’s top defensive coordinators.

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He has to have an appreciation for the Ravens defense. A year ago, the Ravens were consistently among the top 10 in the league. But in recent years, this group couldn’t finish off top opponents and the Ravens struggled with big games in December.

In 2016 and 2017, the Ravens were eliminated from postseason contention on last-minute touchdown passes. The Ravens had similar games this season where the defense couldn’t finish off top teams such as the New Orleans Saints and Kansas City Chiefs. But last week, the Ravens came up with two interceptions before returning a fumble recovery for a touchdown in the final minutes in a win over the Los Angeles Chargers, one of the hottest teams in the league.

Maybe this is a turning point for this defense. Maybe the unit has developed some young playmakers in cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Tavon Young, defensive tackle Michael Pierce and outside linebacker Matthew Judon.

Maybe the new formula is the same as the old one in 2000, when the defense dominated, the kicker rarely missed a field goal and the offense made just enough plays to win.

It’s an old-school game plan, but it’s better than last year’s formula. The Browns are a new team, but so are the Ravens.

Both are better, but the Browns are just learning how to win. The Ravens are hoping to advance to a higher level.

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