1) The Ravens showed they’ve come a long way by not allowing this to be a tense game.
You’d think a late-season game against an 0-13 opponent would be a walkover, but the Ravens were on high alert all week as they prepared for the Browns.
Considering the gut punch suffered in Pittsburgh and the Browns’ motivation to avoid an 0-16 season, the Ravens sought to avoid any hint of a “trap” game.
Aside from a few nervous moments in the second quarter, they pulled it off, using the same formula they have in most of their best games this season — opportunistic defense, competent offense and excellent special teams.
It’s not always exhilarating to beat up on mediocre and poor opponents, but that’s what good teams do. Recall that the Ravens won just two games by double-digit scores as they went a combined 13-21 in 2015 and 2016. They’ve now done it seven times in 2017, and they’ve outscored opponents by a combined 70 points in their five games since the bye week.
No matter the quality of opposition, the Ravens are playing their best stretch of football since at least 2014. And they’ll face two more reeling opponents — the Indianapolis Colts and the Cincinnati Bengals — as they try to sew up their first playoff berth since that season.
2) If the Ravens make the playoffs, clean football will be the leading reason.
It’s not the sexiest formula, but if you make a lot fewer catastrophic mistakes than your opponents, you’ll probably win in the NFL.
The Ravens came in with the second-best turnover margin in the league at plus-13 and with the fourth-fewest penalty yards.
The Browns came in with an almost inconceivably poor minus-21 turnover margin.
That gap only grew Sunday as the Ravens picked off two passes and forced two fumbles while avoiding any turnovers of their own.
Not to be too reductive, but that’s the difference between 8-6 and 0-14.
I’ll acknowledge that after the Ravens forced 10 turnovers in their first two games, I was skeptical they could sustain such defensive production. Credit to them for making sticky hands a defining trait. We haven’t seen a Baltimore defense this efficient at pouncing on quarterback mistakes since the heyday of Ed Reed.
The Ravens aren’t reliant on one player. Linebackers Terrell Suggs, Za’Darius Smith and Matthew Judon all created pressure off the edge in Cleveland. C.J. Mosley played an excellent all-around game and forced a fumble with a huge hit. Safety Eric Weddle made his sixth interception of the season, one short of a career high.
This defense absolutely tortures struggling teams, pertinent information considering they need to beat the Colts and the Bengals the next two weeks.
3) A week after Antonio Brown destroyed them, the Ravens blanketed Josh Gordon.
Gordon’s presence at wide receiver was the biggest difference between these Browns and the team the Ravens played in Week 2.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees said he regretted not shadowing Brown with rookie Marlon Humphrey the previous week in Pittsburgh. But Pees did not react by altering his scheme radically to deal with Cleveland’s most dangerous playmaker.
Both Humphrey and fellow cornerback Brandon Carr covered Gordon, depending on where he lined up. Slot corner Maurice Canady also picked him up at times.
Regardless of which Raven was on duty, they kept Gordon from becoming a significant factor. He caught just five passes on 11 targets, and his longest gain was 18 yards.
Some of the blame goes to Browns rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer, who missed an open Gordon several times. But this performance suggested the Ravens are not sitting ducks against every good outside receiver just because their best cornerback, Jimmy Smith, is gone for the season.
Brown is a remarkable player the likes of which the Ravens won’t see again unless they face the Steelers in the playoffs. A poor game against him does not mean the sky is falling.
4) Joe Flacco has quietly resurrected his season.
Alex Collins had been the story of the Ravens offense, especially in a career-best performance the previous week against the Steelers. But a tough Cleveland run defense bottled him up and punished him.
That put the onus on Flacco to carry the offense, and he did what he needed to do.
We spent so much of the early part of the season lamenting Flacco’s decline that perhaps we haven’t recognized his low-key renaissance since the bye week. Not that he’s making anyone forget the 2013 playoffs, but he’s cut way back on the crippling mistakes while increasing his yardage totals to respectable levels.
After exceeding 200 yards just four times in the first 11 games, he’s crossed that threshold each of the past three. After throwing 10 interceptions in nine games before the bye, he’s thrown just two in the five games since. His yards-per-attempt average has been 6.5 or better in four of the same five games after clearing that mark just three times in the first nine games.
It’s certainly no coincidence that the Ravens are 4-1 over this stretch of improved play from their quarterback.
Flacco made some genuinely impressive throws in Cleveland, none better than the touch pass he dropped in to tight end Benjamin Watson for a 33-yard score late in the second quarter.
He hasn’t talked much about it, but he certainly seems to be moving better and throwing with more zip than he did early in the season, when he was still recovering from a back injury.
5) Sam Koch gave us a virtuoso reminder of why he might be headed for another Pro Bowl.
We take for granted Koch’s mastery of dumping the ball near the opponent’s goal line. He came in leading the league with 33 punts inside the 20 for the season.
He was even better against the Browns, using his wizardly spins to trap the Cleveland offense inside its 5-yard line three times on five punts.
Koch got a hockey assist in the third quarter when he pinned the Browns and Brandon Williams covered a fumble by Kizer for a touchdown on the next play. Punters rarely get to have such a direct hand in setting up touchdown, but Koch certainly earned it with his work Sunday.
He’s a true craftsman who has continued diversifying his arsenal of kicks deep into his 12-year career. Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg and kicking coach Randy Brown also deserve credit for encouraging Koch’s experimentation. Don’t be surprised if he makes his second career Pro Bowl on Tuesday.