When the NFL schedule was released in April, the matchup carried some potential, and plenty of possible storylines.
The return of "Monday Night Football" to Cleveland following a six-year hiatus was to feature the supposedly-improved Browns against the playoff-caliber Ravens, a team that had long tormented them. It was supposed to match one quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy against another who had won the Super Bowl. It was supposed to have some implications in the AFC North race.
Seven months later, what an ESPN national television audience will witness — if they so choose — is a quarterback duel between journeymen Josh McCown and Matt Schaub, not Johnny Manziel and Joe Flacco. The winner between the Browns (2-8) and Ravens (3-7) at FirstEnergy Stadium will be in fourth place in the division, well removed from the playoff picture. The loser will be in last and enter the regular season's final full month in prime position to secure the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft.
This isn't exactly what the Browns, Ravens, the NFL or ESPN had in mind for the prime-time matchup. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the combined winning percentage (.250) for the two teams is tied for the third lowest ever for a Monday night matchup at least 10 games into the season.
Baltimore Sun sports staff picks who will win when the Ravens travel to play the Cleveland Browns Monday night.
"You got Matt Schaub," said Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith when told that Monday's game lacks sizzle."What about a resurgent Matt Schaub going to send us on a six-game winning streak? How about that? How about Josh McCown?"
"I think you all know how our fans feel about the Ravens," Pettine said. "So, this will be a big game no matter what."
Others aren't so sure. While doing a promo for the Browns-Ravens game during last week's Monday night matchup between the New England Patriots and the Buffalo Bills, ESPN veteran play-by-play man Mike Tirico asked his analyst, Jon Gruden, if he loved football. Tirico quickly added, "We'll test you and see how much all of you love it out there" next week.
A story in the The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer this month quoted a ticket broker who said there hadn't been less demand for a regular-season Browns game since 1999, and that secondary-market tickets for the first Monday night game at FirstEnergy Stadium since 2009 were going for "preseason prices."
And those statements were made long before Flacco, the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XLVII and once the owner of the biggest contract in league history, suffered a season-ending left knee injury in the Ravens' 16-13 victory over the St. Louis Rams, and Manziel was benched for his latest off-the-field indiscretions.
"We want to go win a football game," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, addressing the lack of anticipation for the matchup. "We're not sitting there saying, 'Oh, I wonder what everybody thinks?' We're not in seventh grade here. 'I wonder what they think of me? What are they texting about us? What does Snapchat say?' … There are a lot of bullies out there in the cyber world. We don't care what they think."
The league cannot flex Monday night matchups, like it can with Sunday night games, meaning ESPN is stuck with the slate that the network gets in April. Early last week, network promos were touting the prime-time appearance of Manziel, who was coming off a career high 372-yard passing performance in a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
However, Manziel was demoted to third string after videos surfaced of the controversial quarterback holding a champagne bottle while partying at a Texas nightclub. Manziel, who had promised to lay low during the bye week, reportedly sealed his fate by lying to Browns officials about the video.
Enter McCown, the 36-year-old who is on his seventh team in 13 NFL seasons. Schaub, 34, is on his fourth team, including his third in as many seasons.
"We're going to see what journeyman quarterbacks can do when the bright lights are on them," said Smith, who expressed his belief in Schaub several times over the past week.
For the Browns, who have lost five straight games by an average of more than 15 points, this is familiar territory. They've had just two winning seasons in 17 years, and they haven't won a playoff game since 1994.
In the time since Harbaugh became Ravens coach and Flacco their starting quarterback — an uninterrupted 136 games — the Browns have had five head coaches and 14 starting signal callers
The Ravens' 20th season in Baltimore has arguably been their most disappointing. A chic Super Bowl pick when the regular season began, the Ravens have lost seven games by a total of 32 points, undone by a lack of execution late in games and a flurry of injuries.
The Ravens have more than $60 million of their salary cap allotted to players who are either on injured reserve or no longer members of the organization.
"Our mindset is to stay the course, continue to do the things that we can do and control what we can control," said Kamar Aiken, who entered the season with 24 career catches but is now the team's No. 1 wide receiver with Steve Smith Sr. and rookie first-round draft pick Breshad Perriman on injured reserve. "We're still in the hunt. We're going to do our best to keep ourselves relevant."
The Ravens will play Monday with a quarterback, Schaub, who hasn't played in a game his team has won since Sept. 15, 2013; with a running back, Buck Allen, making his first career start in place of an injured Justin Forsett; with three backups likely starting on the offensive line; and with a receiving corps that features just one player (Aiken) who was on the active roster before Oct. 1.
They'll need to win at least five of their final six games to avoid the first losing season in Harbaugh's eight-season tenure. Several players say that's an obtainable goal and a few last week were still talking about making the playoffs.
However, with a decimated roster, the Ravens are far more likely to contend for the first overall draft pick in April than the postseason. Fourteen teams entered the weekend with four wins or fewer, so the battle for the top pick is still hard to handicap.
However, analytics website numberFire has given the Ravens an 8.66 percent chance of finishing with the top pick. The Browns, meanwhile, had a 34.42 percent chance.
Who says there's nothing on the line come Monday night?
"It's a big game here," Pettine said. "I know we're not — with both teams — where we want to be record-wise, but I fully expect to see two teams, passionate, wanting to win, going after it on Monday night, and hopefully our crowd is behind us."