Game 16 Preview: @ Baltimore

Since it’s Christmas week and I’m still recovering from the allergy to whatever wheat starch Butterball puts into its turkeys to make them brown and moist, this will be pretty brief.

The Ravens have no real chance to make the playoffs. They’re tied with San Diego for the final playoff spot– and the Chargers beat them 34-33 a few weeks ago, so San Diego has the tiebreaker if both teams finish 10-6. Baltimore has to win and hope Kansas City does too.

The Chargers are playing Kansas City– who don’t have starting QB Alex Smith. I don’t see that as an enormous loss, but it does make the task easier for the Chargers.

Baltimore is an example of a team that is weaker than meets the eye. They’re in the top 10 in both scoring (25.9; eighth) and points allowed (19.5, seventh), but they aren’t consistent. Some weeks the offense lights up the scoreboard (four games with 33+ points);often the defense clamps down on opponents (six games allowing 21 points or less).

But they never seem to be able to get both units to show up on the same day. The defense holds the Colts to 20 points… but the offense scores only 13. They had no trouble scoring on the Chargers– and couldn’t keep them off the board.

The #1 sign of a good team is point differential– combined margin of victory,. Baltimore is +97, fourth in the NFL (New England, 163; Green Bay, 128; Seattle, 126), yet they’ve somehow managed to play six close games and lose four.

The main reason they’re in this mess is that they’re 2-3 against the AFC North. They lost both games to Cincinnati (which clearly can be beaten), split blowouts against the Steelers (won 26-6 and lost 43-23) and squeaked by the Browns won 23-21 in a game where Billy Cundiff missed a 50-yard field goal and had a 36-yarder blocked.

The defense has been problematic, because it hasn’t been forcing turnovers. Baltimore has only 20 giveaways (10th-best), but it have only 20 takeaways (21st). They’ve tipped away a lot of balls– but the difference between a “pass defensed” and an “interception” is that the offense gets to try again after a tip.

Because the secondary is weaker, the Ravens have come after quarterbacks a lot– they’re third in sacks, and fifth in sack percentage (sacks per pass attempt). QB Connor Shaw must be looking forward to facing DE-LBs Elvis Dumervil (17 sacks) and Terrell Suggs (11.0).

Since they’re fourth on run defense (3.6), the Browns could be looking at a shutout.

On offense, Baltimore is seventh in rushing (4.7 per carry). Depending on your perspective, they’ve accomplished it either despite losing Ray Rice or because of it (if you think he was running out of steam). After some uncertainty about who the #1 back would be, they plugged in Justin Forsett (who was with Jacksonville last year, Houston the year before and Seattle the year before that) and he’s gained 1,147 yards (5.3 a carry) with 8 scores.

QB Joe Flacco is having your basic Joe Flacco year. His summary stats are nice  (89.7 rating 25-12 TD-INT ratio) , but once you scratch the surface, he gets weak:

  • 5 games with a rating under 80; 6 with a rating over 105.
  • 77.7 rating and a 6-5 TD-INT ratio in 5 games against the AFC North (including his sparkling 79.6 and 1-1 against the Browns).

Most of the good stuff came against the NFC South:  a rating of 130.3 and ratio of 11-2.

The Ravens won a title with Flacco… but they won one with Trent Dilfer too. I don’t see him as being substantially better than Andy Dalton. Dalton hasn’t won a playoff game; you know will tank in the big games. With Flacco, it’s flip a coin. 50-50 is better than 100%, but he should be a guy they can count on.

Last week was your quintessential Joe Flacco game. They played the Texans– who had lost Ryan Fiztpatrick to injury and were starting the immortal Case Keenum. Keenum went 20-42 for 185 yards and got picked once– a whopping 50.2 rating.

Flacco, needing only to play decently, puts up a 41.7 rating by going 21-50 (42%) for 195 yards (3.9 per play), throws 2 TDs and 3 picks. The Ravens lose 25-13 and probably fall out of the race.

The Browns: The  Browns have mastered the art of creating horrific final games– often with a placeholder at quarterback. The club always seems to implode down the stretch– in a cloud of negative stories– and 2014 was no exception:

  • Even if he wanted to return, Brian Hoyer‘s relief job against Carolina ensured that nobody wanted him back.
  • Johnny Jamboogie had  six wretched quarters, looking so uncomfortable that some people already want to pull the plug on his time in Cleveland.
  • CB Justin Gilbert got called out for lack of effort by everyone except the ticket takers.
  • RB Terrance West got held out of another game for not putting forth effort in practice.
  • CB Joe Haden is hurt again.
  • WR Puff Gordon was suspended for… basically, being Puff Gordon.

Plus, DT Ahtyba Rubin, WR Miles Austin, DE Jabaal Sheard, CB Buster Skrine, S Jim Leonhard, WR-KT Marlon Moore and Flanker “Poke” Cameron will be unrestricted free agents. Other than Leonhard and Moore, they’re likely to lose all of them. While none are stars, the Browns don’t have replacements handy

FS Tashaun Gipson is a restricted free agent, and the odds that someone will offer him a huge package (as the Browns did with Andrew Hawkins) is pretty high.

They don’t really have a running game, they can’t stop the run and they’re into the off-season with a front office that (except for LG Joel Bitonio) blew every pick in the draft. Other than CB Pierre Desir (who played two nice games), there’s no one who suggests, based on his play, that he’s going to play well if he gets more time.

Plus they’re starting a rookie who hasn’t even been on the active roster. Oh, goody.

Outcome: The Ravens have a habit of making games against Cleveland closer than they ought to be They would have lost this game if teh Browns knew how to kick field goals; a year ago, they won 14-6 and lost 24-18.

Hence, the final score could be a lot closer than it would appear. I’d love to imagine that Shaw, RB Isaiah Crewell (who went 11-55-1 in the first game) and miscellaneous receivers provide the spark, because I like the team and think it would be nice for them to go 8-8.

But, since the Browns usually end their seasons with a thud, I’m going to do the inverse of Burt Graeff (who always used to predict the Indians would finish first every year) and say Ravens 74-0, with 9 defensive TDs and 2 safeties. If they do better, it’ll be a nice surprise.

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