Although not their biggest rivalry, beating Browns always important for Ravens

About 140 miles from FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, where the Browns and Ravens kick off at 1 p.m. Sunday, arguably the NFL's most anticipated game this weekend will be going on simultaneously at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals renew their heated rivalry in a matchup most prognosticators believe will ultimately decide the AFC North. The Ravens, meanwhile, have long used their season series against the Browns as a springboard to the postseason.


In the past 13 seasons, the Ravens have swept the Browns eight times. In every one of those years, they've qualified for the playoffs. And then there's this: The Ravens have started 2-0 four times in franchise history and made the postseason each of those years.

While everybody is talking about the higher-stakes matchup Sunday in what might be football's best division, the Ravens seemingly understand that to get where they want to go this year, they have to beat the Browns. The Steelers and Bengals can wait.


"We don't really care about who else is playing or when they are playing," Ravens tight end Crockett Gillmore said. "We have to take care of our job and get to 2-0."

Beating the Browns has been one of the constants during the John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco era in Baltimore. Since 2008, the Ravens are 14-2 against Cleveland. Eight of those games — and five of the past six — have been decided by eight points or fewer, so perhaps the gap between the two franchises in narrowing.

However, when the two teams meet again Sunday, the contrast between where both franchises stand at the moment should be obvious. Trying to rebound from just their third nonplayoff season in the past decade, the Ravens are 1-0. The team's defense played one of its most dominant games in years in a Week 1 victory over the Buffalo Bills, which was also notable for the regular-season return of several prominent players from significant injuries.

The Ravens have one of the oldest rosters in the NFL, but they have stability in the front office and at quarterback, and enough talent and depth to harbor realistic playoff aspirations.

With the second-youngest roster in football, the Browns remain mired in another state of rebuilding. The season began with legitimate optimism after the arrival of head coach Hue Jackson. Week 1 brought a cold dose of reality in a 29-10 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Browns were unable to handle rookie Carson Wentz, a quarterback they reportedly didn't want in April's draft, and they lost their own starting signal caller, Robert Griffin III, to a potentially season-ending shoulder injury.

When journeyman Josh McCown starts today for the Browns, they'll become the first team in NFL history to need multiple starting quarterbacks in 15 straight seasons, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Before Flacco's knee injury on Nov. 22, the Ravens went seven consecutive full seasons with the same starting quarterback, a fact not lost on Jackson, who was Flacco's position coach in Baltimore in 2008 and 2009.

"The fans might not like me for a while, but they are going to love me here pretty soon. That's OK," Jackson said earlier this week. "Eventually, they will love me. I promise you that because I do plan on winning here. I do get it. I know with every loss there is another dagger that just drags you down another few feet deeper. That is OK. I've been there before. I am a fighter, so we are going to get back up and we are going to keep swinging. We are going to be fine."

Jackson is the Browns' sixth head coach in the past nine years. When the former Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator got the Cleveland head coaching job in mid-January, Ravens officials applauded the Browns for making a home-run hire. Players and coaches spent much of this past week lauding Jackson, whose offenses in Cincinnati have given the Ravens myriad problems.

Harbaugh even called Jackson the "ringmaster."

Jackson, meanwhile, said the Browns will take a similar approach to their AFC North rivals in trying to build a team that is annually competing for a playoff spot.

"Coming from Cincinnati and being in the playoffs the last four years, five years, whatever it was there and then, obviously being in Baltimore and going to the AFC championship game, there are a lot of lessons learned just in that," Jackson said. "I understand that is what we are chasing. I have a model in my mind of what that looks like, and we have a model as an organization of what we are trying to accomplish and what it should feel like. We are going to get there. I think we all know that sometimes it is tough when you first start. But I truly believe we will get there. I think we have the right mindset about it and the plan to make it happen."


The Browns appear to be a couple of seasons away. From Flacco to Andy Dalton in Cincinnati and Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, the other AFC North teams have their franchise quarterbacks. Even if he stayed healthy, Griffin appeared to be only a stopgap solution. McCown has beaten the Ravens in two of his three career matchups, but he's 37 and not the long-term answer.

Cleveland's defense has also been so turned over that eight of the current 11 starters are either rookies, a full-time starter for the first time or a free-agent acquisition this past offseason. Flacco's concession in a conference call with Cleveland-area reporters this week that he really didn't really know much about anyone on the Browns defense besides star cornerback Joe Haden got some attention.

"You can't go in there and say, 'Well, with their record and their circumstances, this is going to be an easy day,'" Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. said. "You can't go in there and think that or presume that, because you will embarrass yourself if you do that."

The Ravens, of course, are in no position to take anybody lightly. They are coming off a 5-11 season in which they lost to the Browns at home — allowing McCown to throw for 457 yards in the first meeting — and beat them on the road, thanks to Will Hill's touchdown return of a blocked field-goal attempt with no time on the clock.

The Ravens have long since moved on from last season, and their victory last weekend over the Bills featured some encouraging signs. There will be bigger tests ahead for these Ravens as they play three of their final four games on the road against the New England Patriots (Dec. 12), the Steelers (Dec. 25) and the Bengals (Jan. 1).

But for those games to have the ramifications they're hoping for, the Ravens need to pass the test right in front of them.

"We need to continue to get better. This is the NFL. Most importantly, this is the AFC North. In my opinion, it is a tough division; it is the toughest division in the league," Ravens rush linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "Last week was last week. It was good to get off to a good start. Now, it is on to Cleveland. It is on to the next team. It is their [home] opener, and they are going to be emotionally ready to play. We have to make sure we match that."



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