The Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns are at opposite ends of the AFC North spectrum. While the Ravens continue to push for wins and a shot at the post-season, the Browns have improved only to watch their chances at winning a single game this 2017 NFL regular season diminish with each slip into neutral. The Ravens have the 10-2 Steelers to look forward to in front of a national audience on Sunday Night Football; a team that just swept the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night by winning in the final seconds of the game, 23-20. The Browns must endure hosting a Green Bay Packers team that just activated their veteran quarterback off of the IR.
The Ravens are in a familiar situation
Head coach John Harbaugh may not like looking in the rearview mirror, especially after his team beat the Detroit Lions, 44-20, on Sunday, but comparisons to this year's team and the team of 2016 are already well on their way regardless. Last year the Ravens were 7-5 heading into the final stretch after pummeling the Miami Dolphins, 38-6, and then they lost cornerback Jimmy Smith to a season-ending ankle injury and dropped their final four games. They ended the season at .500 (8 wins - 8 losses).
The 2017 squad enters Week 14 with a 7-5 record (having won four of their past five games) and hold a one-game lead over several teams for a wild-card spot. Unfortunately, just as they hand Detroit a hefty loss, looking ahead to rival Pittsburgh, Jimmy Smith injures his Achilles tendon (ankle) and receives a four-game (so, season-ending) suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Fair or not, Smith will begin serving his suspension while on injured reserve. The pending suspension was not a blind-side by the league; the Ravens were aware of it before they played the Lions.
I don't really know the details of it ... He'll be on IR, I know that. However the rules work with that, that's how it will play out. I knew about it before the injury. - J. Harbaugh
The Ravens will be forced to lean heavily on rookie Marlon Humprey in Smith's place and hope that Jaylen Hill (an undrafted rookie), Maurice Canady and Stanley Jean-Baptiste can produce the same results, as a rotating group, that Smith was for the Baltimore defense.
We're not going to sit back and be sorry for ourselves. Maurice is back. Marlon has got to step up. Jaylen has got to step up ... Will the guys be as good as Jimmy? No. But we'll step up and play well in his absence. - E. Weddle
The Ravens have to be encouraged that quarterback Joe Flacco looked much better against the Lions than he has nearly all season. Flacco threw for two touchdowns on the day without giving up an interception and was aided by Alex Collins rushing for two more.
"We have set ourselves up to the point where we are playing meaningful December football," Flacco said after the game, "and that's one of the goals at the end of the day. We're going to continue to do that, and yes, a game like this [against the Lions], late in the year versus a team that's also trying to make a push for the playoffs, can definitely do a lot for our confidence."
Baltimore will be paying close attention to news coming out of Pittsburgh as they prepare to face off for the second time this season and hang onto those hopes of confidence-building games.
Browns could go winless in 2017
The Cleveland Browns got Josh Gordon back. That sentence was one of the highlights of the week entering the game against the surging Los Angeles Chargers. Unfortunately, words do very little to win football games. Sure, Gordon went vertical to grab a ball as Casey Hayward draped over him. If Gordon was able to keep himself sober, the Browns may actually have a shot at a win this season, but even Cleveland fans aren't holding their breath. At 26, Gordon does not present a very intriguing future filled with prospects. The fact is this: Gordon is his own worst enemy, as a recent Sports Illustrated article illustrated. If only the Browns could bank on Gordon being sincere that he is on the straight and narrow and will be team-focused.
Instead, the Browns are looking at the trending topic on social media and listening to pundits and analysts as they jockey for how many picks they'll get in the 2018 NFL Draft. As their offense continues to be dictated by Hue Jackson and company's quarterback rotations and nearly indescribable playcalling, the defense isn't invested. And why should these players invest in a system that is clearly broken? It's obvious some Cleveland players have thrown their towels in the wash bin and are just hoping the next few weeks pass quickly. Others may be playing for the simple sake of personal pride and that very slim hope that they'll earn one 'W' this season.
Interestingly, it wasn't Gordon who got tossed under the bus (after Jackson said it was "like Christmas" getting him back) following the loss on Sunday, but a guy who has done everything possible to earn the trust of his teammates in a horrible situation: DeShone Kizer. Of 13 targets, Gordon was able to grab just four passes. According to ESPN, the eight passes he didn't secure were "simply bad throws" and two were negated due to penalties. Ignore the fact that one of the incompletions was a result of Kizer being "roughed" on the play. Ignore the fact that Kizer has had little to no time to work with Gordon, develop a sense of trust and feel for his speed.
Instead, let's go with ESPN's take that "if Kizer had completed the first possible touchdown the way the Browns had done in practice, Gordon's day would have gone from four catches and 85 yards to five and 129 with a touchdown --- and maybe over --- 200 yards receiving." Sorry, but even I am not buying into the idea that the reason the Browns can't win is all on Kizer and "Flash" Gordon is the great savior of this complete failure of a team.
Did Kizer have a disappointing game? Yes, he did. Where was his help? Why was Joey Bosa allowed to strip-sack him? Why aren't his receivers helping him out (Sammie Coates may still have finger issues?) Jackson's response to the disappointment Kizer has expressed was nearly laughable. "When I saw (DeShone's) face today, he was down. I'm being very honest with you," Jackson said, "but I told him in front of the whole offensive football team, we're not doing that. We're not going to get down."