In anticipation of the 2013 NFL season, Baltimore Sun blogger and reporter Matt Vensel will take a daily look at one of the 13 opponents on the Ravens' regular-season schedule. Today is the Cleveland Browns.
The Ravens, as you know, play the Cleveland Browns twice during the regular season. The AFC rivals first meet in Week 2, when the Ravens host their home opener at M&T Bank Stadium. They play again in Cleveland seven weeks later, in early November. There has been a lot of change in Cleveland this offseason, but scheduling quirks will give the Ravens extra time to prepare for the new-look Browns. They open the season on a Thursday night, which is 10 days before their home opener. And then they play the Browns in Week 9, right after their bye week. Coach John Harbaugh has never lost a game when he has 10 or more days to prepare.
Recapping 2012: Last season, the Browns became one of the few teams in NFL history that started Week 1 with a rookie quarterback (Brandon Weeden) and running back (Trent Richardson). But with those two 2012 first-round picks leading the offense, the Browns got off to an 0-5 start. They played better in the middle of the season, knocking off divisional in rival Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers. But they lost their final three games to finish 5-11. The Browns ranked 24th in the NFL in scoring offense and 19th in scoring defense.
Cha-cha-changes: The Browns started off their offseason by firing head coach Pat Shurmur after two seasons and replacing him with former Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski. The new coach brought in respected coordinators in Norv Turner and Ray Horton. The Browns made a splash in free agency by throwing big money at Ravens outside linebacker Paul Kruger, who is expected to become a leader for the Browns' revamped defense. The Browns also added LSU pass rusher Barkevious Mingo with the sixth pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
The skinny: They might just be getting a little too cute, but some national analysts have hyped the Browns as a sleeper pick to the make the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Their defense has always been better than their rankings indicated, and the addition of Kruger and Mingo should improve their pass rush. But for the Browns to take a leap forward in 2013, they need their 29-year-old second-year quarterback to step up. The installation of Chudzinski's vertical passing attack should help, as will the presence of Turner, an exceptional quarterback tutor.
Recent history: The Ravens have never lost to the Browns in the past five seasons with Harbaugh as head coach and Joe Flacco as the starting quarterback. Seven of those 10 wins were decided by more than a touchdown. Last season, the Ravens beat the Browns, 23-16, in Week 4 and 25-15 five weeks later.
Degree of difficulty: As I just mentioned, the Ravens have owned the Browns over the past half decade, and while the Browns should be better in 2013, there is little reason to think they won't get the better of them again this year. I'll give the Week 2 game at M&T Bank Stadium a degree of difficulty of 3. Make it 3.5 in Cleveland.