The Baltimore Ravens can still achieve their goal of qualifying for the postseason. They will just need some outside help to make it happen.
A loss Sunday to the Cleveland Browns would end all remaining hope, but the Ravens are at home and likely to face an undrafted quarterback who has never taken an NFL snap.
Baltimore (9–6) needs a win and Kansas City to defeat San Diego - a game that starts at the same time as this one - in the regular season’s final week in order to make the playoffs.
“Our emphasis is completely and squarely on the Cleveland Browns,” coach John Harbaugh said. “That’s what we’re going to be doing. I’m sure they’ll flash the score up there … We’re not going to be immersed in any other game. That’s a recipe for disaster.”
The Ravens entered Week 16 in control of their own destiny and carrying the momentum of back-to-back wins, but neither factor translated to a quality performance. Baltimore had a season-low 211 yards of offense and equaled its lowest point total in a 25–13 loss to Houston.
While the rushing attack was held to a season-worst 33 yards on 16 attempts, Joe Flacco threw three interceptions as he completed 21 of 50 passes - a 42.0 percent rate which was his worst since 2011.
“It was a tough game,” Flacco said. “I said it afterwords: We got whooped in a lot of ways … There’s not really too much you can do about it at this point. You just have to have confidence in yourself, confidence in yourself as a group and go out and win the next one.”
Baltimore’s ability to run the ball has dramatically decreased each of the last two weeks. After ranking near the top of the league through Week 14 with 135.7 rushing yards per game, the Ravens have averaged 63.0 in their last two contests.
Justin Forsett is the league’s sixth-leading rusher with 1,147 yards, but he’s been held to 67 in the past two weeks on 26 carries.
“It’s tough,” Flacco said of the struggling run game. “The way this offense runs, it’s definitely key to get it going, because a lot of play-action is set up off of that, a lot of our keepers are set up off of that. And when we fall behind, we lose the ability to do that.”
Flacco is 12–1 all-time against Cleveland, including a 23–21 victory in Week 3 when Justin Tucker kicked the winning 32-yard field goal as time expired. The Browns have never beaten him in Baltimore, losing six straight there while averaging 11.0 points.
Cleveland (7–8) enters Sunday with its own multitude of issues. The current four-game losing streak has kept the Browns out of the playoffs for the 12th consecutive year and without a winning record for a seventh season in a row.
Problem No. 1 is the quarterback situation. Johnny Manziel is out with a hamstring injury and Brian Hoyer has an injured shoulder. That means Connor Shaw will come off the practice squad and start the season finale.
“I’m excited about it,” Shaw said Friday. “It was a good week of practice and I had a lot of support from coaches and teammates and I’m confident going into this game with the game plan. We’ll see what happens on Sunday.”
An undrafted free agent, Shaw is the third quarterback to start for the Browns this season and the 22nd for the franchise since 1999.
“He’s been outstanding for us all year,” coach Mike Pettine said of Shaw. “He’s done everything that we’ve asked. He’s not the biggest guy. He’s not the fastest guy. He’s not the strongest guy, but he just found a way to be productive and I think that his strength lies in competitiveness. He’s a guy that I wouldn’t be surprised if he does have to play that he goes out there and plays well.”
Shaw inherits an anemic offensive unit. In the last three games, Cleveland posted its three lowest yardage totals of the season, highlighted by a 107-yard showing against Cincinnati in Manziel’s only full game before he got hurt in last Sunday’s 17–13 loss to Carolina.
That offense took another blow Saturday when the team announced embattled wide receiver Josh Gordon was suspended for the season finale for failing to attend a morning walk-through before the team’s flight to Baltimore. Gordon, who already served a 10-game league-imposed suspension for multiple drug violations, has 24 catches for 303 yards in five games.
While the rushing attack has had its share of problems, averaging a league-worst 3.13 yards per carry since Oct. 15, the run defense has been particularly bad in the past two weeks. The Bengals and Panthers combined for 453 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, dropping the Browns to last in the NFL with 142.4 rushing yards allowed per game.
Still, veteran linebacker Karlos Dansby is finding positives from the 2014 season.
“We made strides. People didn’t have us winning seven games, y’all had us winning one game - if that,” Dansby said. “But we surprised y’all. Like I said, we are on a mission. We are a team with purpose, man. We are purpose-driven… If I was the general manager, I would keep everybody. And let’s go get it next year.”
Browns cornerback Joe Haden could return after sitting out last week with a shoulder injury. He was selected to the Pro Bowl on Tuesday along with safety Tashaun Gipson, who was placed on injured reserve last week, and left tackle Joe Thomas was picked for an eighth consecutive season.