When the Ravens needed a stop late Sunday night, when their offense just couldn’t push them across the finish line against the Cleveland Browns, they showed Ray Lewis on the videoboard inside M&T Bank Stadium.
This is the Lamar Jackson era in Baltimore, and it probably will be for a while now, but sometimes the original recipe works just as well as the newfangled stuff. This soon after Thanksgiving, why mess with tradition? On a night of career worsts for Jackson, it was the Ravens’ defense that locked down a crucial divisional win, tapping into the franchise’s old glory in another wild prime-time matchup.
Needing to keep the Browns out of the end zone over the game’s final 70 seconds, the Ravens didn’t even let Cleveland get past its first-down marker. Tyus Bowser, playing to the standard Lewis set at linebacker over his 17 years in purple, broke up a third-down pass and stopped tight end David Njoku 3 yards short of the sticks one play later to seal a 16-10 win.
“Defense was just off the charts,” coach John Harbaugh said after his 23rd win over the Browns (6-6) as the Ravens’ coach, tied with the New England Patriots (against the New York Jets) for the most against one team in that span. “I mean, that’s one of the best defensive performances that we’ve seen out here in a long time. To hold that offense down the way they did, to hold that rushing attack down the way they did … I thought our guys played tremendously well across the board on defense.”
It was a win the Ravens (8-3) were happy to take into their trip next Sunday into Pittsburgh, where the reeling Steelers (5-5-1) await. The Ravens held Cleveland to 262 yards of total offense, the Browns’ second fewest this season, and forced two turnovers. Kicker Justin Tucker hit all three of his field-goal attempts, including 49- and 52-yarders. There were no major injuries to report postgame.
With their third win in four games, the Ravens kept their lead in the AFC North over the Bengals, who’d opened Sunday’s slate of games by throttling Pittsburgh in Cincinnati, 41-10. And with the Tennessee Titans falling to New England, the Ravens retook their spot atop the AFC. Breathing down their neck are the Patriots (8-4), Titans (8-4), Kansas City Chiefs (7-4), Bengals (7-4) and Buffalo Bills (7-4).
Sunday’s performance was not one Jackson would be eager to revisit. In his first game back since a mystery illness that sidelined him in Week 11, he finished 20-for-32 for 165 yards, one touchdown and a career-worst four interceptions. He became the first quarterback to throw four picks in a win since 2013, and he set a career high for interceptions in a season (12).
According to Stats Perform, the Ravens are the only team in the Super Bowl era to score fewer than 17 points, finish with fewer than 325 total yards, throw at least four more interceptions than their opponent and still win. Teams in those scenarios were 0-275-1 in the regular season and postseason before Sunday.
Time and again, an oft-criticized defense got the Ravens out of trouble. Their goal for Sunday, cornerback Marlon Humphrey said, was to hold the Browns’ top-ranked rushing attack to 80 yards. Cleveland got only halfway there. Even with defensive end Calais Campbell sidelined for the first time this year by a concussion, Browns running backs Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb finished with a combined 36 yards on 15 carries. Mayfield added 4 yards. The Browns’ longest carry all game went for a mere 9 yards.
“The key was definitely to stop the run and kind of have our chances with Baker and his weapons,” Humphrey said. Mayfield, playing through injuries in maybe his final game in Baltimore with the Browns, finished 18-for-37 for 247 yards and a touchdown. “We felt everything goes through their run game. Once they get their run game going, the play-action comes. So we felt if we could make them one-dimensional, our best chance of winning would be that way.”
On offense, the Ravens got just enough from Jackson to lead for three-plus quarters. After a dreadful, three-interceptions-in-five-drop-backs kind of first half, he came out after halftime without his black sleeves and with some old magic. In the first half, he’d finished 10-for-17 for 74 yards and watched the Ravens get two field goals. In their first possession of the second half, he went 4-for-4 for 63 yards and delivered a highlight-reel touchdown.
His final two completions on the drive were vintage Jackson. On third-and-4 near midfield, Jackson scrambled to the sideline before throwing a high-arcing pass to tight end Mark Andrews, who was sprinting downfield on an improvised route against safety Ronnie Harrison Jr. Andrews not only drew the pass-interference penalty as he came back to the ball but also caught it with one hand.
“I knew it was a catch,” said Andrews, who led the Ravens with four receptions for 65 yards. “So I was like, ‘They better give me that dang catch, man.’”
Three plays after the 39-yard completion, Jackson bought just enough time to launch one into the end zone. First, he side-stepped a diving Jadeveon Clowney. Then he dropped back, and farther back, and farther back, until he was 15 yards beyond where he’d taken the shotgun snap. He swung around just before defensive end Myles Garrett could line him up for a sack, spotted Andrews uncovered and threw to the goal line.
Andrews’ diving 13-yard grab gave the Ravens a 13-3 lead and Jackson a chance to breathe. With the touchdown secured, he pointed both hands at Garrett, who stared at him in apparent disbelief, before coming over to embrace the Browns’ star. There was a lot to take in.
“He didn’t really say nothing,” Jackson said. “He just shook his head. … He was just giving me props on the play, that’s all.”
Cleveland’s offense finally took its cue. Helped by a roughing-the-passer penalty on Bowser (one sack and three quarterback hits), the Browns covered 87 yards in five plays. Mayfield found tight end David Njoku for a sliding 20-yard catch that was upheld after a long review. With just over a quarter remaining, the Ravens’ lead was down to 13-10.
Toward the end of another offensively challenged fourth quarter — just two Browns first downs, another Jackson interception — Tucker gave the Ravens some breathing room with just over a minute left, nailing a 49-yarder, his 55th straight make in the fourth quarter or overtime. The Browns had no answer.
“Our defense, we want to take pride in whether they can score at the end,” Humphrey said. “When we [are on defense], all we’ve got to do is stop the team four times, [and] we want to take pride in being able to deliver. I remember C.J. [Mosley] got that pick back there against the Browns [in Week 17 of 2018]. And it’s so special when you end the game on defense. Taking a knee is the best play in the game, but getting a fourth-down stop is right there next to it.”
The first half Sunday was not the offensive explosion that was the teams’ last prime-time meeting, a 47-42 instant-classic Ravens win in Cleveland last December that had 35 points in the fourth quarter alone. It was instead a showcase for quarterbacking ineptitude.
Jackson tied his career high of three interceptions in less than three minutes of game time. On the first, wide receiver Rashod Bateman tipped a pass to outside linebacker Malcolm Smith, who deflected it to cornerback Denzel Ward. On the second, safety Grant Delpit stepped in front of a telegraphed pass over the middle to Andrews. On the third, safety Harrison capitalized on Jackson’s apparent miscommunication with Andrews, who ran one way as Jackson passed the other, to Harrison.
“I feel like those drives, when the interceptions came, we could’ve done something on those drives,” said Jackson, who couldn’t identify a common denominator in the interceptions. “We could’ve put points on the board. I just told my team, ‘That’s me. I owe y’all.’”
The Browns’ first-half turnovers were fewer but more creative. Late in the second quarter, with Cleveland on the edge of field-goal range, wide receiver Jarvis Landry (six catches for a game-high 111 yards) took a shotgun snap and waited for someone to get open. He soon scrambled into trouble. Ravens outside linebacker Odafe Oweh tracked him down for a strip-sack, and inside linebacker Patrick Queen pounced on the fumble for the turnover.
Two drives later, after Cleveland capitalized on Jackson’s first pick for a short-field field-goal drive, it was Mayfield who ended up as the punchline. On another drop-back in field-goal range, Mayfield backpedaled and backpedaled, buying time from Oweh and safety Chuck Clark. When he finally wound up to throw, he did so without the ball. Oweh fell on the fumble at the Ravens’ 49; their defense was credited with a team sack.
“Just happened on the pump fake,” Mayfield said. “I lost the grip on the ball. It’s just one of those things. I absolutely hate it. The sequence of events was crazy. We get the turnover and get good position, then we turn it over.”
Injuries did Cleveland no favors. The Browns lost All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin, making his first start since a Week 8 elbow injury, to a first-quarter knee injury after Oweh ran him over on a bull rush. Harrison was sidelined briefly. So was Clowney. Tight end Harrison Bryant left with a first-half ankle injury.
As the Browns limped back to Cleveland with questions about Mayfield’s viability in the short and long term, the Ravens vowed to make the most of their sixth win this season by six or fewer points. They’ve won despite defensive implosions. They’ve won with Jackson struggling. “Nobody gets flustered,” Harbaugh said afterward. There might be better teams outside Baltimore, but there’s no better place than first.
“We’re in control of our own destiny, which is a beautiful thing, but we’ve got to get better,” Andrews said. “We’ve got to get better in every aspect, but we’ve got a bunch of fighters on this team. Like I said, we believe, we trust each other, and we’re going to come each and every day to work, to get better, just trying to be the best team we can be. I think if we do that throughout these weeks, especially these divisional games, we’re going to reap the benefits of that.”
Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
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Line: Ravens by 3