The Ravens aren't officially at the halfway point of the 2013 season, but they face a "must win" situation Sunday in Cleveland against the Browns.
Few like to use the phrase so early in the season, especially in a league where scenarios change like the weather. But with the Cincinnati Bengals (6-2) playing so well while leading the Ravens (3-4) in the AFC North and the Bengals heading to Baltimore next Sunday, the Ravens need the win to make a big move.
Sunday is the perfect time for a Ravens victory.
"They're all critical," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Every one of these games is critical. I don't care if it's division, not division, they're all linchpin games as far as I'm concerned. Every time we play a game — in my mind — is make or break as we go into it. When the season is over, that will be determined, which games were and which games weren't. But we feel like we've got to go win this game, just like we felt we had to win the last game."
Cleveland (3-5) is coming off a, 23-17, emotional loss to the unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs, and a loss to the Browns would make reaching the playoffs a tougher challenge. Plus, the Ravens have had two weeks to prepare since they had a bye Sunday.
The Browns are actually playing well according to Browns standards and they would have beaten the Chiefs if receiver Davone Bess had managed to hang onto a few passes and a punt. The Browns are playing strong defense and their offense is functional enough to win, but the Ravens still should win.
They've had time for players to heal. Guards Kelechi Osemele (back) and Marshal Yanda (shoulder) have gotten healthier and running back Ray Rice (hip) might be close to 100 percent. With a week's rest, the Ravens should have had time to get defensive linemen Chris Canty, Terrence Cody, Brandon Williams and Haloti Ngata back into a steady rotation, and offensive tackle Eugene Monroe and linebacker Jameel McClain have had time to get acclimated again.
Under these situations, the Ravens should be near full-tilt. Right? They should win. Correct?
"I thought it was good. I thought we had a good couple of days off," Harbaugh said. "It was good to get them some time away with their families. The mid-season rest is always good. You get a chance to get your legs back, get a chance to get your body healed a little bit. Those are the positives of a bye week, the great thing about it. It was a plus for us. I'm looking forward to seeing how we respond in terms of how we play."
It's also safe to assume that the Ravens have made some adjustments on both offense and defense because they have had time to self scout and employ new schemes. Maybe they'll add a few Wildcat plays or get wide receiver Torrey Smith more touches.
After showing improvement against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens, according to a team source, want to go back to the offensive game plan of last postseason when the Ravens used more three receiver sets and allowed quarterback Joe Flacco to call his own plays at the line of scrimmage.
Through the first seven games, according to the source, the play calling had been a collaboration of receivers coach Jim Hostler and offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell. There hasn't been one signal caller like previous coordinator Cam Cameron.
On defense, the Ravens have had an opportunity to add some more run blitzes to a group that has allowed 104.3 rushing and 238.7 passing yards per game. In the secondary, the Ravens have had time work to improve a unit that had more communication glitches than the website for signing up for Obamacare.
The Ravens have never lost to Cleveland under Harbaugh, now in his sixth season. The Ravens have always been favorites but most of the games have been hard played.
This one will be no different. Cleveland is allowing 103. 6 yards rushing, but only 216.8 passing yards. The Browns are stout on the defensive front, but they don't have great talent at quarterback with Jason Campbell or running back Willis McGahee. When a team only has one of the Big Three, that usually means a loss.
The Ravens have four road games remaining, and they can take this one in Cleveland and the other Nov. 17 when the Bears probably will be without quarterback Jay Cutler. They still have five home games remaining and but only one, the Minnesota Vikings, appears to be a definite in the win column.
So when a team gets a chance to rest a week and make some changes the other team hasn't seen, there is a good chance for victory. When it comes against a team that is used to losing and coming off an emotional loss, the percentages improve.
There aren't many opportunities like this in the NFL. The Ravens have to win. They must, because if they don't, they dig a hole so deep that they can't recover.
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