The Baltimore Ravens have an opportunity to take further control of the AFC North with a victory over the winless Cleveland Browns on Thursday night.
The Ravens (4-4) sit atop the division after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers 21-14 in Week 9, which also snapped a four-game losing streak. Despite the Browns' 0-9 record, Ravens coach John Harbaugh is expecting another hard-fought game.
"We understand that this is a quality football team that we're dealing with," Harbaugh said. "Games are lost for different kinds of reasons. Usually, it's a play here and a play there, and some of those plays haven't gone their way. It can go that way. We've been in the same situation. We lost four in a row. It just was like that. That can happen. ... Our guys understand the rivalry that we have with Cleveland."
While the Ravens look to retain some momentum, the Browns are trying to avoid the first 0-10 start in the 66-year history of the franchise. Cleveland was completely dominated in a 35-10 loss to Dallas in Week 9. The Browns have allowed at least 25 points in each of its nine losses.
"We got to take the punches," Cleveland linebacker Chris Kirksey said. "Get back up and keep fighting. That's life. We're not going 0-16. We're not going to go winless. We're going to win a game."
One of the keys for the Ravens is getting several injured starters back in the lineup. The bye in Week 8 could not have come at a better time.
Ravens rookie left tackle Ronnie Stanley (foot) returned to action against Pittsburgh after missing the past four games. Stanley did show some rust and was penalized four times. Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda (shoulder) also was back in the lineup after missing the past two games.
While the Ravens allowed three sacks, the offensive did appear more in sync.
Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith (ankle) also returned after missing the prior two matchups. He finished with four receptions for 47 yards, including a 30-yard catch and run in the first quarter that provided a boost to the struggling offense. Linebackers CJ Mosley (thigh) and Terrell Suggs (biceps) started and made an immediate impact.
"It's all in how you finish," Suggs said. "If you miss the playoffs, who cares where your defense ranked. This is about winning games, going to the playoffs, winning division championships, winning championships. At the end of the year, you can 1/8say 3/8 'oh, they had a top-10 defense,' whatever, but if you don't win, it doesn't matter. Winning is the only thing that matters, the only thing."
The Ravens won the first matchup this season, 25-20, after trailing 20-0 in the first quarter. That was the second biggest comeback in franchise history. This time, Ravens will look to take the struggling Browns out of the game early.
Browns rookie quarterback Cody Kessler returned from a concussion and made the start against Dallas. He completed 19 of 27 pass attempts for 203 yards with a touchdown. However, he was sacked four times and appeared to be limping after the game.
Browns coach Hue Jackson confirmed Kessler will get the start Thursday against the Ravens.
"He is a young player, and I want to have an opportunity to watch him (against) the toughest competition so we can do a better job of evaluating him for our future," Jackson said.
Jackson was also looking forward to playing on the short week to hopefully take the sting out of the latest loss, but acknowledged the Ravens' aggressive defense poses a huge challenge.
"You get a chance to get that taste out of your mouth," Jackson said. "Obviously, that game was here at home in front of our fans and people that we like to go out and perform well for. We were not able to do that 1/8for them 3/8. We get a chance to go on the road and go play another game against a very good opponent."
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2015, gave the team and fans a scare in the fourth quarter against Pittsburgh. Flacco was forced to hop off the field after he jammed his surgically repaired left knee on awkward slide in the third quarter. Flacco ran directly into the locker room and was able to return with a new knee brace.
Flacco said he is fully healthy and the Ravens need to take advantage of their situation in the current standings.
"We can say that we're atop the division," Flacco said. "I think when you have a handful of guys on your team, and this is the first time being in this game with these guys, it gives them a lot of confidence moving forward."