The Baltimore Ravens can clinch the division and take another step towards home field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win this week over the Browns.
The Browns can play spoiler and avoid going winless in the AFC North.
The Ravens offense is no longer run three times and punt. Steve McNair has brought legitimacy to the quarterback position in Baltimore. In crunch time, he has shown that he is the leader of this offense. He is avoiding sacks, avoiding mistakes and moving the chains. Most importantly, he has allowed the defense time to rest.
McNair has stabilized and balanced this offense with leadership. He still has a good arm but no longer has the great arm. He can still pick up a few yards with his legs but he isn't going to run very often. He also remains a very difficult quarterback to bring down. He will slide within the pocket, deliver the ball and accept the contact.
Steve McNair is not without numerous weapons. Derrick Mason is just 310 yards away from his 6th consecutive 1000 yard season. Mason is a big physical receiver that is willing to put his body on the line to make the tough catches. He excels in beating zone coverage by driving hard into his cuts and once he hits the open space, he slows, squares his body and gives the quarterback the big target. He is also one of those receivers that will protect his quarterback by fighting for the bad throw.
Receiver Michael Clayton is an emerging young star. While Mason succeeds with a physical style combined with great experience, Clayton is a burner. He is so quick in and out of his breaks that defensive backs simply lose him even on the simple stop and go routes. Keeping Clayton in check will depend on deep help from the safety.
Tight end Todd Heap is the safety valve and go to guy in the clutch situation. When you need a big catch to keep the drive alive, Steve McNair is looking for Todd Heap. He has great hands, will go up in traffic and fight the ball away.
Jamal Lewis has not been the same running back since 2003. Off the field issues, injuries and a struggling offensive line has contributed to his fall. Browns fans however still remember the 300 yard game he posted against them and if the Browns front seven play like last week, he could shatter that 300 yard record
The Ravens D consist of pro bowl players and future Hall of Famers but the one person that deserves the most credit for how dominate this defense has been this year is defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. Rex is simply a defensive genius. He is a rare coach that can get the absolute most out of his players.
Rex schemes to his team's strengths. He does not stay within the boundaries of a certain defensive system. It is organized chaos. He uses the 3-4, 4-3, 4-4 and even Buddy Ball with the 46 defense. The offense never knows what Rex will throw at them next and seeing a single defensive linemen rushing the Saints Drew Brees, with 10 defenders sitting in the end zone, was a thing of beauty.
Rex Ryan could be the next Ravens' defensive coordinator to become an NFL head coach.
For the Ravens defense it starts with the front 3. The defensive linemen control the line of scrimmage and free up everyone else to make plays. The common denominator with these three is tremendous power and drive in their legs. They can bull rush most single blocks into the backfield. This is how the double team is created and linebackers are freed up to finish the play.
Trevor Pryce also brings more than the simple bull rush. He has a wide array of pass rush moves. His career has been rejuvenated under the tutelage of Rex Ryan and he is for the first time in 3 years, a pass rushing beast once again.
When it comes to the Ravens linebackers, Ray Lewis is the first name discussed but it is the other three linebackers that are making quarterbacks tremble. Terrell Suggs, Bart Scott and Adalius Thomas are wrecking havoc across the league. They have combined for 26 sacks thus far and seem to get better each week.
They are providing the pass rush but they also are not losing containment against the run. Thomas has made huge strides in sliding with the back and with Ray Lewis mopping up everything in the middle; this is a complete linebacker quartet.
The Ravens secondary is vulnerable to the deep pass when the pass rush is not getting pressure on a consistent basis. Samari Rolle, Ed Reed and Chris McAllister are very talented defensive backs but there has been a decline in their lockdown ability. When reviewing the Ravens, it is amazing at how often this secondary is beat, but they are protected by the front 7.
They do play press coverage very well inside 15 yards but as the play becomes extended, you see the separation begin. They are also a group that likes to make plays on the football and this can lead to even more trouble when they bite on the pump fake. Keep your eye on this group Sunday as they are susceptible to the deep ball.
It appears as if Charlie Frye may be absent once again. This will give former Raven Derek Anderson his second start as quarterback of the Cleveland Browns. Derek has simply been outstanding in the two games that he has appeared but he will be facing his former team and the best defense in football.
Derek has shown dramatic improvement in his mechanics since preseason. His throws seem much more compact and his delivery is high and within his body. He has cannon for an arm and can make plays that few quarterbacks can make. He still needs to improve his touch, but his accuracy has been outstanding despite the many dropped passes. He is also showing a tremendous pocket presence which is helping the offensive line.
They know where he is going to be. This allows the offensive line to play their position the way it was meant to played. The tackles can ride their man wide without worrying that the quarterback is stepping back to far or running right into the path that they have directed the defender. Derek is simply taking the snap, making his progressions, stepping up into the pocket and delivering the ball. A quick release and pocket presence is the best friend of an offensive line.
The Browns receivers were bad last week. There were 9 passes that should have kept drives alive, instead they hit the ground. That is inexcusable. If they continue to drop passes, the quarterback will begin to look in other directions like the sure hands of Joe Jurevicius and Kellen Winslow.
The Browns running game has been running into a brick wall all season. They appear to be ready about once ever 5 games. The run blocking has not been great but they do not make people miss. Few running backs have huge lanes without at least one defender to beat. The Browns backs do not make anyone miss. It is either a huge hole or stuffed at the line of scrimmage.
In the first meeting the Ravens had no answer for Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards. They combined for 12 receptions and over 200 yards. Look for the Browns to challenge the Ravens secondary early and often.
Injuries to linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, safety Brian Russell and defensive end Orpheus Roye will be almost impossible to overcome. D'Qwell Jackson is the Browns best run stuffer from the linebacker position. Russell is the field general that gets the defense in position. Roye is the Browns best defensive linemen.
Their loss will provide opportunity for the youngsters. It is often said the only difference is opportunity and there will be opportunity to not only make a statement that you deserve to be in the NFL but also that you can be a starter in this league.
The key for the Browns defense is the defensive line. Another performance like Pittsburgh and we could see a complete overhaul of this unit in the off season. There is no excuse for a center being able to drive Big Ted Washington and Andra Davis off the line by himself.
Kamerion Wimbley had a very good game in the initial match up against Jonathon Ogden. He didn't have any sacks but he provided a great deal of pressure all game long. Look for this battle to set the stage for Sunday's contest. Ogden is a veteran pro bowl tackle and it will be interesting to see the adjustments between game one and two.
The Browns depleted secondary will have their hands full. It is bad enough having to stop Clayton, Heap and Mason but add in Jamal Lewis and it will not be a good day at the office. Run support will be just as important as pass defense for the secondary
The Browns have slept walked through most of this season. I would love to say that this should be another great contest between these two hated rivals but the Browns haven't even shown up for their last 2 divisional games.
The Ravens have a lot to gain and a lot to lose this Sunday in Baltimore. They need this one desperately. The Browns only have pride to play for and we haven't seen much of that lately.