Insiders

TNF Takeaways: Baltimore Takes Control of AFC North

on

As the 2016 NFL season turns the corner past the halfway point, it’s as good as time as any to assess the surprises and disappointments across the league, and one of the biggest disappointments of this year has to be the general mediocrity of the AFC North.

Entering Thursday night, all four teams in the division were at or below .500. Two teams that seemed ticketed for the bottom of the division at the outset of the season met on Thursday night in Baltimore and while one continued to flail toward one of the worst seasons in franchise history, the other used the evening as an opportunity to seize control of the division.

Behind three second-half touchdown passes by Joe Flacco and a dominant effort by their defense, the Ravens topped the Browns 28-7 at M&T Bank Stadium. It was Baltimore’s second straight win after a four-game losing streak, pushed them back over .500, and their fifth victory of the season tied their win total from all of last season. The Ravens now sit a half game above the Steelers, who they defeated last week, in the AFC North standings.

“I think we’re in a building process with our team, but most certainly with our offense, which has the furthest distance to go, probably,” Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said. “We had some success in the second half, and that was really important for us to do that.”

In the early-going on Thursday night, the Ravens offense was sluggish at best, and despite myriad mistakes by the Browns, it was Cleveland that scored the lone touchdown of the half and took a 7-6 lead in at the break. But the Baltimore defense held the Browns to just over 100 yards of total offense in the first half and had the Ravens in the game despite the deficit. So when the offense woke up in the second half, Baltimore took complete control.

After a quick Cleveland three-and-out, Flacco drove the Ravens 64 yards on nine plays, utilizing short and intermediate pass plays to carve up the Browns defense. Flacco took a deep shot on Baltimore’s next possession and was picked off by Joe Haden, so after the Ravens defense got him the ball back, he went back to keeping things short and sweet and let his receivers and backs do the heavy lifting, which proved successful again and again.

“I think the biggest thing today was we were able to get the ball to Mike [Wallace] and Breshad [Perriman] underneath today on some guys and just let them do the work,” Flacco admitted.

Flacco loves to air it out and has one of the biggest arms in the league, but perhaps utilizing the speed and athleticism of their receivers instead of trying to out-run teams with deep routes is the more sustainable recipe for success for the Baltimore offense as currently constructed. The Ravens still don’t have much of a running game, evidenced by 34 carries netting 119 yards on Thursday night and the fact that was still the second highest rushing yard total for the team this season. But if they can utilize their receivers in a short passing game, it may be able to mimic a running game in many ways.

But bigger for Baltimore’s chances for success this season will be seeing if their defense can play at anything close to the pace they did on Thursday night. After limiting the Browns to 107 yards in the first half, the Baltimore defense was even better in the second half, allowing just 37 yards total after halftime. They limited the Cleveland rushing offense to just 33 yards total and had Browns rookie quarterback Cody Kessler so out of sorts that Cleveland head coach Hue Jackson went to veteran Josh McCown in the second half “looking for a spark.” McCown didn’t provide it, completing 6-of-13 passes for just 59 yards with two interceptions.

The Ravens won’t play a team as bad on offense as the Browns the rest of the season, but they’re building some momentum on defense coming out of their bye. After allowing an average of 337 yards per game during their four-game losing streak before the bye, the Ravens have allowed just 421 yards of total offense in the last five days, as they compiled crucial division wins over the Steelers and Browns. If they can keep that up on defense and get their offense going, while the Bengals and Steelers struggle to find their own footing against tough schedules, Baltimore might be the team to beat in the AFC North.

“It was good to see all three phases of our team contribute fully. For the offense to step up and play as well as it did in the second half is good for our football team,” Harbaugh said. “Hopefully, we’ll all look back at this at the end of the season and say this was a turning point for the offense.”

IS CLEVELAND DOOMED TO AN 0-16 FINISH

Thursday night seemed like they type ripe for a big upset that gave the Browns their first win of the season. Short weeks create the type of mayhem that plays into the hands of the underdog and road teams have fared surprisingly well over the years on Thursday nights.

But after a dogged start that saw the Browns shoot themselves in the foot several times yet still hold a halftime lead, being the Browns caught up to Cleveland and the end result was a blowout loss. It was the second such loss in five days for Cleveland, who was boat-raced by the Dallas Cowboys at home last Sunday.

A series of single-digit defeats early in the season left the Browns looking like a team that was just getting unlucky in the pursuit of their first victory. But over the last two games, they’ve now been outscored 63-17 and things are starting to look quite bleak. Cleveland doesn’t have its bye until Week 13 and before then they play the dynamic offenses of the Steelers and New York Giants, which could both be expected to add to their misery and that lopsided point spread. So might the Browns find a win this season?

Though they both have strong offenses, the weakness on defense of the Steelers and the general inconsistency of the Giants from week to week this season makes both teams upset possibilities. But the Browns won’t carry much momentum into those games and they’ll be must-win late November affairs for their opponents, who are both in playoff contention, making the chances bleak at best.

Following their bye, things don’t get much better for the Browns. In Week 14, they host a Bengals team that beat Cleveland by two touchdowns a few weeks ago and will also be looking to hang in the playoff race. Then comes a visit to Buffalo to take on another fickle mistress, the Bills. That game presents itself as a possibility, but perhaps the more likely moment is a week later back in Cleveland, where they host a Chargers team that is likely to be out of the postseason picture at that point that will be traveling nearly all the way across the country for an early game. It’s there that the Browns will likely have their best chance at success.

That game presents a possibility, but perhaps the more likely moment is a week later back in Cleveland, where they host a Chargers team that is likely to be out of the postseason picture at that point that will be traveling nearly all the way across the country for an early game. It’s there that the Browns will likely have their best chance at success. Cleveland then finishes the season against the Steelers in Pittsburgh.

Odds are the Browns find a way to win of their final six to avoid joining the 2008 Lions, currently the only team in NFL history to have gone 0-16, in the pantheon of all-time losers. There are plenty of opportunities remaining for Cleveland to avoid that fate. But what they need to do either way is stick with rookie quarterback Cody Kessler and see how he continues to handle adversity. With a potential No. 1 overall pick looming in the upcoming draft, the next six games are vital to determining what Kessler’s future is both with the Browns and in the league at-large.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys