The Ravens figure to have a good shot in the playoffs if they can secure some home games. After all, Baltimore is riding the longest home winning streak in franchise history.
The Ravens look to complete their first perfect regular season at home and do their part to clinch the AFC North with an eighth straight victory over the Cleveland Browns this Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium.
Baltimore is currently riding a club-record nine-game winning streak at home, taking all seven of its games in the Charm City this year. The Ravens have also won 17 of their last 18 at home, part of the reason they have reached the playoffs in a club-record four straight seasons.
That run of playoff appearances was extended last Sunday despite a 34-14 loss in San Diego. The Ravens had a four-game win streak halted, but at 10-4 remained tied with the Steelers for first place in the AFC North. Baltimore owns the tiebreaker over Pittsburgh after winning both meetings this year.
The Ravens also sit a game behind the New England Patriots for the top record in the conference, with the AFC South-champion Houston Texans now a half-game back of Baltimore after losing to Indianapolis on Thursday. They can clinch both the division and a first-round bye in the upcoming playoffs with a victory and a loss by the Steelers to the visiting St. Louis Rams.
Baltimore, though, was handled last weekend by San Diego despite quarterback Joe Flacco throwing a pair of touchdown passes. However, he was intercepted twice in the third quarter and the Ravens' third-ranked defense was torched for a season high in points allowed.
Head coach John Harbaugh's club went into the game having already clinched a playoff spot due to losses by the Jets and Titans and he became the fourth coach since 1970 to take his team to the playoffs in each of his first four seasons.
"We did not play particularly well at all. I think the mistakes we made they were able to capitalize on and turn them into points, especially early on," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. "We're disappointed but we're moving on."
The Ravens will look to move on against a Browns club that they haven't lost to since Nov. 18, 2007. Baltimore extended its win streak over Cleveland with a 24-10 victory on Dec. 4.
Running back Ray Rice paced a big day by the Ravens' ground game with a career-high 204 yards.
That loss was the second of a current four-game slide by the Browns and their last game at home. Cleveland has dropped its last two games on the road, losing in Pittsburgh and Arizona.
The Browns were able to hang with the playoff-bound Steelers before Pittsburgh broke the game open late, then blew a 10-point lead over the Cardinals en route to a 20-17 overtime loss.
"We had them on their heels and when it gets to that point, it's about not making mistakes, not turning the ball over and giving them some easy points and making plays," said Wallace. "I need to help us out a lot more and start making some plays for our team."
McCoy is unlikely to play again this weekend after suffering his concussion on a helmet-to-helmet hit by Pittsburgh's James Harrison on Dec. 8. That should lead to Wallace getting his second straight start.
"At this point I'm not ready to say, but more than likely he'll be the starter, for sure," Browns head coach Pat Shurmur said of Wallace on Tuesday.
A loss this Saturday would give Cleveland its longest losing streak since a seven-game slide from Oct. 18-Dec. 6, 2009 and would be its seventh straight on the road following a win at Indianapolis on Sept. 18.
The Ravens own a commanding 18-7 lead in their all-time series with the Browns, whose first edition of the franchise moved to Baltimore to become the Ravens prior to the 1996 season before re-entering the NFL as an expansion team in 1999. Baltimore will be shooting for a home-and-home sweep of the Browns for the fourth consecutive season and its eighth victory over Cleveland at M&T Bank Stadium in the last nine years. The Browns received a 24-17 loss in their 2010 trip to Baltimore and last came out on top on the road in this set via a 33-30 overtime verdict in 2007, which also happens to be Cleveland's most recent triumph over the Ravens.
Harbaugh owns a perfect 7-0 lifetime record against Cleveland during his tenure with the Ravens, while Shurmur lost his only meeting with both Baltimore and Harbaugh as a sideline boss with Cleveland's Week 13 setback. The two previously worked together on the staff of the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2007, with Shurmur then the team's quarterbacks coach and Harbaugh the special teams coordinator and later in charge of defensive backs.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
No matter who is under center, the Browns appear to have a big-game threat in the making in wide receiver Greg Little (57 receptions, 2 TD). The rookie had five catches for a career-best 131 yards, including a 76-yard touchdown snag that was the longest offensive play for Cleveland since Braylon Edwards' 78- yard scoring grab on Sept. 30, 2007. Little passed Eric Metcalf for the second-most receptions by a Browns rookie, leaving him nine shy of Kevin Johnson's record of 66 set in 1999. Cleveland also got its best performance of the year from running back Peyton Hillis (445 rushing yards, 3 TD), who totaled a season-high 99 yards on 26 carries with a score. Hillis had a breakout year in 2010, but has been slowed by injury this season for Cleveland's 30th-ranked ground attack (95.9 YPG). Wallace added 21 yards rushing in the place of McCoy (2,733 passing yards, 14 TD, 11 INT) and was not picked off, but his lost fumble was huge. Wide receivers Mohamed Massaquoi (27 receptions, 2 TD) and Jordan Norwood (23 receptions, 1 TD) had three catches each.
The Ravens come into this game ranked second against the run, fifth versus the pass and tied for third in scoring defense, but have some things to clean up after struggling versus the Chargers. Baltimore gave up 415 yards of offense despite getting linebacker Ray Lewis (78 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) back in the lineup for the first time in five games due to turf toe. The Ravens gave up three rushing touchdowns to the Chargers and saw San Diego score on each of its first five possessions. Cornerbacks Jimmy Smith (11 tackles, 2 INT) and Cary Williams (69 tackles) also struggled, with the former seeing increased playing time due to Lardarius Webb (62 tackles, 1 sack, 4 INT) battling injury. Lewis led the team with 10 tackles, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (57 tackles, 5 sacks) added eight and inside linebacker Jameel McClain (77 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) had six. The Ravens have one of the best pass-rushing linebackers in Terrell Suggs (60 tackles, 13 sacks, 2 INT), but he was held without a sack versus the Chargers as was the rest of Baltimore's defense.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
As much as Baltimore's defense struggles, Flacco's two interceptions came during a third quarter that helped the Chargers pull away. Flacco (3,348 passing yards, 17 TD, 11 INT) threw for 226 yards on the night, finding wide receiver Torrey Smith (43 receptions, 7 TD) and tight end Ed Dickson (51 receptions, 4 TD) for touchdowns. Smith, a rookie, is coming on as a solid second option behind No. 1 Anquan Boldin (57 receptions, 3 TD) and led the Ravens with 77 yards on six receptions. Boldin, though, is expected to miss the final two games of the regular season due to knee surgery, but is expected to return for the playoffs. Rice (1,086 rushing yards, 71 receptions, 12 TD) hauled in a game-high nine passes for 55 yards and rushed for another 57 on 10 carries. Rice leads the NFL with 1,734 total yards from scrimmage and is just 52 receiving yards shy of becoming the second player in league history to run for 1,000 yards and post 700 receiving yards in multiple seasons, having previously done so in 2009. Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk is the only other player to have done so. Backup Ricky Williams (371 rushing yards, 2 TD) is also closing in on a milestone as his 20 yards on three carries a week ago left him 64 shy of 10,000 for his career. Flacco was under a mess of pressure versus the Chargers, getting sacked five times.
One area the Browns do excel at is getting to the quarterback, something that has helped the club rank third against the pass this season (188.4 YPG). Cleveland got two sacks apiece from rookie defensive lineman Jabaal Sheard (78 tackles, 7.5 sacks) and linebacker Chris Gocong (60 tackles, 3.5 sacks) versus Arizona, with Sheard passing Michael Dean Perry for the second-most by a Browns rookie. Perry had six in 1988. Fellow rookie and defensive end Phil Taylor (52 tackles, 4 sacks) has also played well this year and first-year cornerback Buster Skrine (14 tackles) nabbed his first career interception last Sunday. Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson (138 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT) led Cleveland with 13 tackles, matching a season high, while cornerback Joe Haden (59 tackles, 1 sack) is tied for fourth in the league with 17 passes defensed. Gocong ended with nine tackles to highlight his first career multi-sack game and defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin (67 tackles, 3 sacks) made four stops. He ranks second among all NFL defensive lineman in tackles.
KEYS TO THE GAME
No surprise, but expect Rice to once again be the focal point of Baltimore's offense. With Cleveland's secondary and pass rush doing a great job this season, Rice will be needed to keep the lineman honest and open up some holes for the wide receivers. Getting him involved in both the ground and passing games is usually a recipe for success in Baltimore.
Cleveland's ground game showed some signs of life last weekend, with the embattled Hillis having one of his better games of the season. Of course, that momentum could quickly get derailed against the Ravens' tough run defense, one that should be extra motivated after last week's play.
Both the Browns and Ravens rank in the top 10 in points allowed a game, so winning the turnover battle will be key to this game. Baltimore holds a plus- one turnover ratio on the season, while Cleveland has an even zero.
The Ravens put together a complete effort in Cleveland at the beginning of the month and figure to be in good shape taking on the struggling club on their home turf. Baltimore knows it wasted a golden opportunity to gain ground in the conference last weekend and given its struggles on the road this year, securing some home playoff games should be the club's No. 1 goal. Baltimore took full advantage of Cleveland's weakness in defending the run in the first meeting and should do some of the same to grab a much-needed victory in this one.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 21, Browns 13