The Baltimore Ravens are set to host the Cleveland Browns in an intriguing AFC North matchup on Thursday Night Football (8:20 p.m. ET, NFL Network). This game might appear decidedly lopsided on paper, but the bitter historical rivalry between these franchises should bring out the best in both teams.
The 2-1 Ravens are riding a wave of momentum following a dramatic win over the New England Patriots last Sunday night. Quarterback Joe Flacco was sensational in the second half of that game; he'll look to build upon that performance on another national stage. The 0-3 Browns, meanwhile, have been competitive, but youth and inexperience have led them to make costly mistakes in critical situations. Beating the Ravens for their first win of the year could energize the franchise for a strong midseason run.
Let's take a look at four key questions for Thursday's showdown:
1. Can the Browns' young playmakers produce against the Ravens?
The Browns have built their offense around the talents of quarterback Brandon Weeden, running back Trent Richardson and receiver Josh Gordon. The rookie threesome has shown flashes of immense talent and potential over the first three weeks of the season, but their collective inexperience and inconsistencies have kept the team from securing a win. Against a rugged Ravens defense, coach Pat Shurmur and offensive coordinator Brad Childress must simplify the game plan so that the team's young core can play fast and with confidence. Richardson will receive a ton of carries early in an attempt to slow the Ravens' aggressive blitz tactics. When the Browns opt to pass against the Ravens' eight-man fronts, Gordon (and Greg Little) must win on the outside against bump-and-run coverage. If the Browns can avoid long-yardage situations by achieving balance on early downs, Weeden and Co. could have a shot at knocking off a Ravens squad that might be a bit flat after Sunday's emotional win.
2. Will Cam Cameron let Joe Flacco take over the offense?
The Ravens' offense has been more explosive this season due to the continued maturation and development of Flacco. The fifth-year pro has become a deadly passer from the pocket. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has been putting the ball in his young quarterback's hands, showing his trust in Flacco by having the Ravens go to the no-huddle offense more frequently. Against the Patriots, the Ravens went to their no-huddle offense on 44 of 63 snaps and piled up over 500 total yards in the process. Flacco completed 28 of 39 passing attempts for 382 yards and three touchdowns, getting picked off once. Most impressively, he hooked up with receivers Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin and Jacoby Jones on a number of deep shots over the top of the defense. With Flacco seemingly finding his rhythm as a deep-ball thrower, it will be interesting to see if Cameron turns him loose on the Browns' inexperienced secondary.
3. Who is going to replace Terrell Suggs as the Ravens' top pass rusher?
The Ravens' defense remains one of the most feared in the NFL, but the numbers (Baltimore ranks 27th in total defense and 28th in passing yards allowed) suggest the unit has slipped considerably without the injured Suggs on the field. The Ravens have eight sacks, but a lack of consistent pressure has allowed two opposing quarterbacks to throw for more than 300 yards (the Philadelphia Eagles' Michael Vick passed for 371 yards and the Patriots' Tom Brady threw for 335). Paul Kruger, Pernell McPhee and Courtney Upshaw must contribute a supreme effort off the edges to disrupt Weeden's rhythm and keep him from joining that list. If the Ravens can constantly harass him in the pocket, Weeden will likely make a few poor decisions that result in turnovers.
4. How will Dick Jauron compensate for the loss of CB Joe Haden?
In two games without Haden, who is halfway through a four-game suspension, the Browns have surrendered six touchdown passes to six different receivers. Dimitri Patterson has struggled to replace Haden at left corner, and the rest of the Browns' fairly green secondary has been inconsistent. To compensate for coverage deficiencies, defensive coordinator Dick Jauron might have to scale back on bump-and-run tactics and employ more zone defense against the Ravens. While this certainly will give Flacco a chance to get into a rhythm, Cleveland will have to hope its "bend, don't break" approach slows down the Ravens in the red zone, forcing them to settle for field goals on Thursday night.
Cleveland and Baltimore typically engage in competitive battles, and this game could be much closer than anticipated. The Browns will certainly make it interesting; their hard-hitting defense will crowd the line of scrimmage in an attempt to take away running back Ray Rice. In the end, though, Flacco and his explosive playmakers will find a way to get it done.
Baltimore 28, Cleveland 17
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.