The last time the Cleveland Browns won a division title, they were in actuality an entirely different franchise than the present one that’s kept on the tradition of breaking the hearts of its loyal supporters.
Though we’re only at the midway point, hopes of finally ending that painfully long drought this season could very well be determined long before the stretch run.
A loss this Sunday to their longtime nemesis, the Baltimore Ravens, won’t ensure the Browns will be extending the NFL’s longest active streak of consecutive seasons without a division championship. It sure would make it closer to becoming a reality, though.
The Browns come into this pivotal NFL Week 10 matchup at M&T Bank Stadium trailing the first-place Ravens by 1.5 games in the AFC North and with a 23.2% chance of taking the division, according to our season projection model. They’re also on the wrong end of a potential tiebreaker at the moment after Baltimore cruised to a 28-3 win in Ohio in Week 4 in the first meeting this season.
Needless to say, a second defeat would severely compromise the Browns’ chances of winning a division for the first time since capturing the then-AFC Central in 1989 (they did not compete in the NFL from 1996-98).
LONGEST ACTIVE STREAKS WITHOUT A DIVISION TITLE
- Cleveland Browns (30/1989)
- Detroit Lions (29/1993)
- Las Vegas Raiders (20/2002)
- New York Jets (20/2002)
- Miami Dolphins (14/2008)
For a quick history lesson (or refresher), that last division crown came seven years before then-owner Art Modell packed up the team and relocated it to Baltimore to be rebranded as the Ravens, who later proceeded to win two Super Bowls to throw more salt on the wounds of a city that last celebrated an NFL title in 1964.
More recent history points to Cleveland having a sizable challenge on its hands this week. The Browns are 2-13 in Baltimore since John Harbaugh became Baltimore’s head coach in 2008, and Harbaugh’s team is on a serious roll right now with four straight victories – including dominations of a pair of likely NFC playoff teams (the Lions and Seattle Seahawks) by a combined score of 75-9 in its last two home games.
The public seems squarely on the side of the Ravens, who are solid 6.5-point favorites at last check in a game in which points could be at a premium, as evidenced by a consensus over/under total of just 38. Our predictive model also favors Baltimore while agreeing with the perception of this being a low-scoring affair, though it sees the underdog Browns as the best bets in a game that projects to be much closer than the sportsbooks’ point spread indicates at 20-17.
BROWNS vs RAVENS PREDICTION
- Projected Winner: Ravens
- Win Probability: 54.4%
- Projected Score: 20-17
The first thing to take note of in this matchup is that it features the No. 1 and No. 2 defenses in our EVE rankings (efficiency vs. expected), and both units are coming off smothering displays last week. The Browns limited an overmatched Arizona Cardinals offense to a paltry 58 total yards and seven first downs in a 27-0 rout, while the Ravens were at least as impressive in holding the more-talented Seahawks to 151 total yards and six first downs in a 37-3 demolition job.
Both teams also stand at or near the top in several other defensive categories, as the chart below shows:
Baltimore’s defense was also dominant in the Week 4 rout of Cleveland, though that wasn’t a fair fight after the Browns scratched starting quarterback Deshaun Watson shortly before kickoff and left the offense in the hands of rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who unsurprisingly proved to be not up to the task.
Watson has since returned seemingly close to full health, as he’s bounced back from two pedestrian performances to start the season to deliver efficient efforts in each of his last two full games.
The Browns will need more of the latter out of their $230 million investment this week to keep pace with Lamar Jackson, who has been playing at a level comparable to his 2019 NFL MVP season and may be on the way to garnering some additional hardware if he can maintain those lofty standards.
CLE Key: Tighten the Pass Coverage
It probably seems strange to say a defense that’s yielded the lowest open rate to opponents this season at 72.5% needs to cover better, but the Browns haven’t been nearly as airtight in recent weeks as they were in the beginning of the season. Cleveland allowed an open target on a mere 60.5% of opposing pass attempts over its first three games, but that number has risen to 80.7% over the last five – a stretch that began with a loss to the Ravens in Week 4.
The coverage was a problem against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 7, when Gardner Minshew put up 305 passing yards with two long touchdown completions in a game Cleveland escaped with a 39-38 victory. And it was an issue in the previous meeting with Baltimore, the league’s leader in open percentage (85.5) this season.
Though Jackson deserves the majority of the credit, first-year offensive coordinator Todd Monken deserves some too for the way he’s skillfully schemed a group that’s tied for second in EVE.
Rookie receiver Zay Flowers, one of only two players with at least 50 targets who sports an open rate above 90% (along with Evan Engram of the Jacksonville Jaguars), has proven to be a perfect fit in the new system, while the ultra-reliable Mark Andrews’ open percentage of 87.3 is bettered only by Engram, Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs and Cole Kmet of the Chicago Bears among tight ends with 30 or more targets.
Andrews was particularly a handful in Baltimore’s Week 4 win, as the three-time Pro Bowler hauled in all five of his targets for 80 yards and two touchdowns on a day the Ravens stayed away from lockdown corner Denzel Ward and successfully attacked the Browns with underneath throws. Jackson averaged only 6.94 air yards per attempt that afternoon, yet still averaged close to 10 yards per pass while connecting on nearly 79% of his throws.
The Browns defense has been able to combat its coverage regressions with its stout, Myles Garrett-led pass rush that’s produced league-bests in both pressure rate (44.3) and sacks per pass attempt (12.5) since Week 4, but Jackson has been mostly magnificent when under duress this season.
His 67.2 completion percentage under pressure is second among those with at least 25 pass attempts in such situations, while his pickable pass percentage is among the lowest.
LOWEST PICKABLE PASS% UNDER PRESSURE (MIN. 25 ATTEMPTS)
- Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys (0.00)
- Jared Goff, Detroit Lions (1.28)
- Zach Wilson, New York Jets (1.37)
- Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens (1.56)
- Baker Mayfield, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1.56)
BAL Key: Pressure Deshaun Watson
The Browns have shown themselves to be tough customers when they play sound defense and get competent quarterback play, though they haven’t received too much of the latter due to Watson’s shoulder woes and early-season struggles.
He’s been coming around lately, however, having completed 73.0% of his attempts for 508 yards with four touchdown passes and just one interception over the last two games he’s played all the way through – lopsided Cleveland wins over the Tennessee Titans in Week 3 and Arizona last Sunday. Watson’s advanced numbers in those outings – a well-thrown percentage of 86.8 with no pickable passes – are also substantially better than the 66.7% well-thrown rate and 5.80 pickable pass percentage he recorded through the first two weeks.
Watson was also pretty well-protected in those two good games, with the offensive line allowing a combined pressure rate of just 27.8%. The Browns are more than a bit banged-up up front at the moment, though, as left tackle Jedrick Wills was just placed on injured reserve after hurting his knee last week and right-sider Dawand Jones’ status is in question due to a shoulder injury.
That could spell trouble against the Ravens, the league’s only team with three edge players who have pressure rates above 20% with at least 70 pass-rush attempts this season in former first-round pick Odafe Oweh (23.4), the rejuvenated Jadeveon Clowney (21.7) and veteran Kyle Van Noy (20.6).
Watson has been very good when given proper time, as evidenced by his 70.2 completion percentage, an average of 9.1 air yards per attempt (the highest of any starting quarterback) and low pickable pass rate of 3.19% when not pressured. He’s completed just 45.5% of his passes when pressured, however, with a pickable pass percentage nearly double (6.06) than when his pocket is clean.
Cleveland has had three or more giveaways in all three of its 2023 losses, so it stands to reason an increased risk of turning the ball over equates to a decreased chance of the Browns coming out of Baltimore victorious.
Watson also checks down at a high rate (21.2%) when pressured, which in those cases usually means the Browns aren’t getting the ball to their best playmaker in Amari Cooper. The standout receiver does his best work downfield, owning one of the highest averages of yards at the catch per reception this season:
HIGHEST AVG. YARDS AT CATCH (MIN. TWO RECEPTIONS PER TEAM GAME)
- Rashid Shaheed, New Orleans Saints (14.9)
- Amari Cooper, Cleveland Browns (14.0)
- Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers (13.8)
- Josh Reynolds, Detroit Lions (13.4)
- DeAndre Hopkins, Tennessee Titans (12.3)
Cooper put up big numbers in each of Watson’s last two full games, as he racked up 116 yards and a touchdown against the Titans and 139 yards and a touchdown last week. The Ravens defense, one of the league’s best units against intermediate throws, rendered him a non-factor in Week 4, though, as he managed just one catch for 16 yards.
The Browns will surely try to offset their offensive line issues by running the ball, but their ground game has been spotty and Baltimore just held the Seahawks to 28 rushing yards on 15 attempts last week.
Cleveland surrendered three first-round picks and a ton of money to obtain a quarterback it was counting on to win games just like this. In all likelihood, the Browns will need to see some return on that investment to have their best chance of ending a longstanding lack of success in Baltimore.