The Baltimore Ravens entered their final home game of the 2011 season looking to make franchise history against their divisional opponent, the Cleveland Browns. The chance to wrap up the home schedule with an 8-0 record hung in the balance, giving them the distinction of becoming the first team in the 16-year history of the franchise to finish with a perfect home record. The Ravens wanted to deliver not only an early Christmas present to the fans on Christmas Eve, but also to send a message to not be counted out after the loss to the San Diego Chargers.

The Ravens breezed through the first half leading 17-0 as the Cleveland Browns showcased some of the worst coaching and mis-managing of the game clock in NFL history. The Ravens were aided by the Browns having exactly zero timeouts when they received the ball back for the final time of the 1st half. Driving the distance of the field, Browns RB Peyton Hillis was stopped for no gain at the 3-yard line and without a timeout, the Browns and their head coach Pat Shurmur could only watch in disbelief as time expired in the half.

With the way the Browns had played in the 1st half, one would think the airplane taking the team back to Cleveland would be fired up and on stand-by at BWI-Thurgood Marshall Airport, but they actually made a game out of it and the Ravens at times, seemed to almost want the Browns to get back into the game.

Very questionable play-calling and lack of execution by the Ravens in the 2nd half and a couple of long drives by Cleveland brought the Browns to within six points after TE Evan Moore caught a six-yard TD from QB Seneca Wallace to cut the Ravens lead to 20-14. The Ravens bent all game, but didn’t break as they looked at a 4th and 2 at the Cleveland 37-yard line. True to form, the Browns promptly shot themselves in the foot that held open the door of opportunity in this game.

After Joe Flacco barked out a few hard counts, somehow he lured Browns’ defensive tackle Phil Taylor off-sides on a play the Ravens were never actually going to get off. The penalty gave the Ravens a first down and after running out the clock on the next three plays, gave them a 20-14 victory, their eighth straight win against Cleveland in front of 71,083 fans at M&T Bank Stadium.

Grading the Ravens 20-14 victory over Cleveland

Quarterback: C-

Joe Flacco wasn’t expected to carry the offense against the Browns, considering the success the running game had in the team’s last meeting with Cleveland. His performance was more of a mixed-bag if anything and more of the same things we see from Flacco.

He showed great touch on one of his best throws of the season, connecting with RB Ray Rice on a 42-yard touchdown that Flacco dropped perfectly into his hands to give the Ravens a 17-0 lead. He also showed some good patience in the pocket at times, side-stepping the rush and finding either Rice or other receivers along the progressions.

But there’s also the “Bad Joe” side that in the 2nd half had timing issues and looked completely out of rhythm with his receivers. He under threw WR Lee Evans on a ball in the end zone that was picked off and still has trouble every once in a while on intermediate throws from about 15 yards out, like the throw to WR Torrey Smith late in the 2nd half that was too high for him.

Outside of the 42-yard TD to Rice and TE Ed Dickson’s five-yard TD in the 1st quarter, Flacco threw for only 85 yards the rest of the game. That simply won’t get it done come playoff time. Flacco seems to be regressing again at the wrong time for the Ravens.

Running Backs: B+

Ray Rice ran well, adding to his impressive yardage numbers from the line of scrimmage for the season, gaining 87 on the ground and another 48 through the air. Ricky Williams added 45 yards rushing, giving the Ravens some production as the change-of-pace back. Williams also caught two passes, one being a big 3rd down conversion late in the 3rd quarter.

FB Vonta Leach might be the best free-agent addition in the AFC this season, blowing up the edges for Rice to run through. He made a day out of pancaking Browns LB’s Kaluka Maiava and Chris Gocong, delivering some crushing hits to that group.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: C-

This group should send Anquan Boldin a ‘Get Well Soon’ card because they certainly missed his presence in this game. Lee Evans was a non-factor replacing Boldin in the lineup, he didn’t look very crisp in his route running either. Torrey Smith caught two passes for 38 yards, and looked fast running crossing routes over the middle. TE Ed Dickson caught his 5th TD of the season, but had three drops which is rare and not a good thing for a team that needs Dickson and Dennis Pitta to step up while Boldin is out.

Offensive Line: C+

The line held up well in pass blocking only allowing one sack, even after guard Marshal Yanda left the game with an injury which head coach John Harbaugh described as a “rib contusion of some kind.” The run blocking was solid, as tackles Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher sealed the edges on runs by Ray Rice.

Defensive Line: C+

Terrence Cody and Haloti Ngata closed down the middle as usual for the Ravens. When the Browns ran the ball outside though, the defensive line had trouble getting off their blocks. Browns RB Peyton Hillis rushed for 112 yards and nearly five yards per carry, but the D-line limited the big run threat from Hillis.

Linebackers: D+

Ray Lewis led the Ravens with ten total tackles on the day, but as crazy as it sounds, it may be time for him to be off the field for passing situations on 3rd down. LB Terrell Suggs had four total tackles, but was a non-factor in the pass rush as he went up against Browns tackle Joe Thomas. There was really no pass rush generated again in this game, and the two sacks by the Ravens came from backups LB Paul Kruger and Brendon Ayanbadejo.

Secondary: C+

The corner backs took their beating to heart after last Sunday night’s game and played well against the Browns receivers. CB Lardarius Webb showed no effects from his toe injury, picking off QB Seneca Wallace in the 1st quarter and defending three passes. CB Jimmy Smith played strong, recording seven tackles as he replaced fellow CB Cary Williams who left the game with an apparent concussion.

Safety Bernard Pollard was solid in pass coverage, recording eight total tackles. He just loves to hit and tackle, something the Ravens need. The same could not be said about free safety Ed Reed who missed quite a few tackles and overall played poorly.

Special Teams: D+

Kicker Shayne Graham booted two field goals, filling in nicely for Billy Cundiff. The Achilles’ heel of this team all season has been coverage on kickoffs and punt returns and they allowed another return touchdown by the ever dangerous return-man, Josh Cribbs. Something needs to be done to get this group on track. Special teamers, Kris Wilson and Emanuel Cook each had two tackles.

Coaching: C-

There’s a certain lack of killer instinct with this squad this season that troubles me. If this team aspires to be Super Bowl champs, it needs to start stepping on the throats of inferior squads. This time of the year, teams with 11 wins need to be peaking in all areas, the Ravens are not doing that. Cam Cameron’s offensive game plan went conservative in the 2nd half and gave the Browns a chance they shouldn’t have had to begin with. Chuck Pagano’s defense fell asleep at the wheel in the 2nd half, but got it together at the end of the game to get the job done.

Final Take

This is a win that leaves a little bit of a bad taste in your mouth, but the fact of the matter is the Ravens got the job done when they needed to. What’s important is that the Ravens still hold the #2 seed in the AFC and right now that 1st-round bye would come in handy with players being injured left and right. Four players went down with injuries, both Dannell Ellerbe and Cary Williams left with concussions, right guard Marshal Yanda left with a chest injury and kick returner David Reed is feared to be lost for the season with a knee injury.

First thing’s first, they must beat the Cincinnati Bengals on New Years Day to win the AFC North crown and clinch at least the #2 seed. And that won’t be a cakewalk, the Bengals are streaking, having won their last two in a row to get back into Wildcard consideration.

If not, the Ravens will be right back to where they were after the loss to San Diego last Sunday night.

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