Since their first meeting in Game 4, Lamar Jackson has run away with the league MVP award. (newsweek.com)
Editor’s note: Tony Grossi is an analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland.
Four downs on Browns (6-8) v. Baltimore Ravens (12-2)
First down: Down to the wire.
When the schedule was announced in April, this game looked like a showdown for the AFC North title. Alas, the Ravens made a mockery of the division race with a 10-0 run. Still, there is much relevance in this meeting. With a win, the Ravens would wrap up the AFC No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in the playoffs for the first time in their history. The Browns have something to play for, too, namely Freddie Kitchens’ job. A win would sweep the season series with the Ravens and assure a winning record (4-1) v. division rivals with one to play. It would also keep alive the possibility of 8-8 overall, which technically would be improvement – albeit one-half game – over last year’s record. Despite the trials and tribulations of an extremely difficult first season as Browns coach, you have to feel Kitchens would have a strong argument to return if he could pull off a 2-0 finish. Even the analytics department would have to concur, I’d imagine.
Second down: What the heck happened?
These are not the same teams of Sept. 29, when the Browns outslugged the Ravens, 40-25. The Ravens addressed their defensive deficiencies by trading for cornerback Marcus Peters, adding inside linebackers Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort, and replacing safety Tony Jefferson with Chuck Clark, plus keeping run-stuffing tackle Brandon Williams on the field. More importantly, quarterback Lamar Jackson progressed week by week into the league MVP. The Browns won’t have suspended Myles Garrett chasing Jackson in this one, and their safety situation has deteriorated through injury. On offense, quarterback Baker Mayfield has regressed as much as Jackson has progressed. Some of that has to do with the season-long problem of getting everyone on the same page, causing last-second mishaps that burden Mayfield pre- and post-snap.
Third down: Lamar the Magnificent
Jackson’s historic season exceeded the expectations of even his staunchest proponents. He is first in total touchdowns (33 passing, seven running), third in passer rating (112.8), eighth among all players in rushing yards (1,103) and 10th in rushing touchdowns (seven). “He is killing it, obviously,” said Mayfield, who was taken 31 spots ahead of Jackson in the 2018 draft. “The MVP chants are well deserved. It is very obvious.” Jackson was sacked four times and intercepted twice by the Browns in the Game 4 meeting, and rushed nine times for 66 yards. In the 10 games since, he has been sacked 13 times and intercepted four times, and has averaged 86.5 yards on the ground. Browns defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said his defense will see “pretty much schematically the same offense with what we had last week.” In the Debacle in the Desert, the Browns allowed Arizona rookie Kyler Murray to produce 445 yards of offense, including 226 on the ground, 56 by himself. The Browns’ lack of pass rush and general malaise in tackling would appear to set up Jackson for a big day.
Fourth down: Here we go again.
Against Arizona, the Browns failed to use the obvious strategy of eating up clock with backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt to keep their failing defense off the field. In fact, Kitchens actually elected to put his defense on the field first after winning the coin toss. In 14 games, the Ravens have held a lead at the end of the first quarter 11 times. They are 10-1 in those games. Clearly, one of the objectives in playing the Ravens is to score first because they are relentless with a lead. In the Game 4 meeting, the Browns led, 7-0, after the first quarter and were up, 10-7, at halftime. If the Browns win the coin toss and defer the kickoff in this game, Kitchens should be relieved of his duties on the spot. Here is my analytics formula for this game: Take the ball + score first = best chance of beating the Ravens.
Prediction: Ravens, 31-20.
My record: 8-6.