Nickel Package: Five Things to Watch in Ravens vs. Cleveland Browns

As the Ravens (9-6) square off with the Cleveland Browns (7-8) in the regular season finale Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, here's a checklist of things to keep an eye on:

1. Scoreboard watching


There are only two scores that matter to the Ravens as they chase the sixth AFC playoff berth: their own, and the San Diego Chargers-Kansas City Chiefs result at Arrowhead Stadium. If the Ravens sweep the annual season series with the Browns, they'll win their 10th game of the season. However, that won't earn them a playoff berth unless the Chiefs beat the Chargers. And that's where the Ravens' playoff outlook could catch a significant snag. The Chiefs are playing without starting quarterback Alex Smith due to a lacerated spleen. Plus, Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles is questionable with ankle and hamstring injuries. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is on a roll, playing as if he won't be denied a shot at the postseason. Despite a bulging disc in his back that might require offseason surgery, Rivers practiced all week and is listed as probable. Rivers won't have running back Ryan Mathews on the field due to an ankle injury, has an injury-riddled offensive line and wide receiver Keenan Allen is doubtful with a broken collarbone. Neither team is healthy, but Rivers could make the difference. Because of the comeback victory Rivers engineered against the Ravens this month, the Chargers would qualify for the playoffs ahead of the Ravens due to a head-to-head tiebreaker. The Ravens' multiple injuries on defense, especially to top cornerback Jimmy Smith, have taken a heavy toll on their playoff chances. If the Chargers win, the Ravens will be playing for nothing more than pride and a desire to finish the season on a winning note. That scenario could very well unfold Sunday.

2. Connor Shaw

The unheralded, undrafted rookie quarterback from South Carolina was promoted from the practice squad Saturday in advance of his first NFL game. Shaw, who took the first-team offensive snaps all week, is known for his scrambling and ability to throw on the run. He has never played in a regular-season game, though, and he'll be pursued by outside linebackers Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs. Dumervil has 17 sacks, a half-sack behind Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt and a full sack behind Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston for the NFL lead. Dumervil could be pivotal Sunday because Browns left tackle Joe Thomas routinely stonewalls Suggs. Suggs has 11 sacks this season, but rarely beats Thomas. The majority of Suggs' 15 sacks against the Browns have come against other blockers or before Thomas entered the NFL in 2006 as the Browns' first-round NFL draft pick. Dumervil has 10  sacks against the Browns in seven games.

3. Reconfigured offensive line

The Ravens are going to have to shuffle their offensive line due to injuries to both starting tackles. Rick Wagner is out for the season with a Lisfranc sprain that required surgery. Left tackle Eugene Monroe is expected to miss this game due to an ankle injury. He's listed as doubtful on the injury report. That means that rookie James Hurst is likely to start at left tackle next to left guard Kelechi Osemele with Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda shifting over to right tackle and rookie fifth-round draft pick John Urschel playing right guard in place of Yanda. The Browns' pass rush is led by former Ravens outside linebacker Paul Kruger, who has power, speed and 10 sacks.

4. Joe Flacco

Flacco was visibly uncomfortable and throwing off his back foot under major duress against the Texans. He didn't follow through on his throws and he looked gun shy. The Super Bowl XLVII Most Valuable Player threw a season-high three interceptions. Overall, Flacco has been solid this season, especially at home, where he's thrown a dozen touchdowns and three interceptions this year. Flacco has traditionally been strong against the Browns, winning 12 of 13 starts against them while completing 61.9 percent of his throws for 2,715 yards, 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions for a 90.5 quarterback rating. Flacco was sharp against the Browns during a win in Cleveland this season, passing for 356 yards, one touchdown and one interception with three completions of 25 or more yards.

5. Running game

The Ravens rushed for only 33 yards against the Texans during a 23-15 loss in which running back Justin Forsett was limited to 19 yards on 10 carries. It was a horrendous performance that played a major role in the costly defeat. The Browns aren't good at stopping the run. They rank last in the NFL in run defense, allowing 142.4 rushing yards per contest. If the Ravens can't establish the run against the Browns, they may need to further evaluate if their recent reduced production is an aberration or a sign of a larger problem. Forsett has rushed for a career-high 1,147 yards and eight touchdowns and is a pending unrestricted free agent. A strong finish could cement his bid for a new contract from the Ravens or a lucrative free-agent deal from another NFL team.

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