The Sports Exchange
Our Inside Slant
The Browns are enjoying their best season in more than 10 years, and with one game left they still have much to accomplish.
In Sunday’s regular season finale in Baltimore, the outcome is infinitely more important to the Ravens (9-6). If they win, they are AFC North champions. If the Browns (7-7-1) win, the Ravens would need the Bengals to beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh to back into the division title.
Though a playoff spot isn’t on the line for the Browns, they are not going to mail this one in. Winning would give them their first winning record since they were 10-6 in 2007. It also would give them their first series sweep of the Ravens since beating them twice, not coincidentally, the same year.
“They’ve played well all year long,” Browns interim coach Gregg Williams said. “They’re playing great team complementary fashion. We have our work cut out for us.
“It’s going to be a fist fight. It’s going to be a tough, hard-nosed battle. It reminds me of a lot of the old-school games that have been in this league a long time.”
Browns rookie tailback Nick Chubb needs 28 yards rushing to reach 1,000.
Rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield needs two TD passes to tie the rookie record of 26 set by Peyton Manning (Colts) in 1998 and equaled by Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in 2012.
Mayfield would like the record only if the Browns beat the Ravens in the process.
Last week, Mayfield issued a challenge to his teammates, saying anyone who wasn’t all in for the final two games should clear out of town and not show up. The Browns responded by beating the Bengals, 26-18, in the home finale.
There are no outward signs that anyone in the Browns’ locker room is just going through the motions in practice, meeting rooms or games, but Mayfield felt compelled to issue a similar challenge to his teammates this week. So does he suspect that some players are mailing it in?
“No, but I’m not going to say things just to correct them,” Mayfield said. “You have to say it to set the standard. You have to say it to make sure we have the exact same team every week.
“A team that we talk about needs to progress every week, get better every week. There are reasons why I say those things.”
The Browns are heading into their final game relatively healthy, which is more than they can usually say in late December.
The one exception, however, is a big one. Starting cornerback Denzel Ward, the fourth overall pick of the 2018 draft, sustained his second concussion in three weeks when he was knocked out of the Cincinnati game. Five days before the injury, he was voted to a starting berth on the AFC Pro Bowl team.
Ward did not practice Wednesday or Thursday and remained in the NFL’s concussion protocol, which virtually rules him out of the Ravens game. The concern goes beyond the final game.
There is reason to worry about how long his career will last if he suffers more concussions. Williams says Ward has to change his tackling style.
The rookie left Sunday’s game with 5:14 to play after a shoulder-high hit on Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah, knocking him out of bounds. Uzomah, a 2015 fifth-round draft pick from Auburn, is 6-foot-6, 271 pounds.
“It’s an important part of taking a look at how everything goes,” Williams said. “You have to understand who you’re playing against. You can’t be up that high anymore on those kinds of people. He can’t be up there.”
Williams said the same thing when Ward was injured during the preseason. He said it is imperative that Ward stays low when making a tackle.
This will be the 40th regular season meeting. Ravens lead series, 29-10. The Browns beat the Ravens, 12-9, in overtime on Oct. 7. It was the Browns’ first victory over an AFC North opponent since they beat the Ravens 33-30 in Baltimore on Oct. 11, 2015.
Gregg Williams is 5-2 as Browns interim head coach. Browns owner Jimmy Haslam has been silent about Williams’ future with the team, and by extension Haslam has been silent about who might be named head coach for 2019 and beyond.
Williams was asked whether he would like Haslam to make an announcement this week, similar to the Ravens announcing last week that John Harbaugh would return as their head coach in 2019. The Ravens responded by beating the Chargers, 22-10.
“That is a very good question that you know that I can’t answer because we’re on to the Ravens.” Williams said.
In 2017, Williams was the Browns defensive coordinator during the 0-16 season. He said the mood at the team complex in Berea, not surprisingly, is completely different than it was a year ago.
“I have been in a lot of buildings that have been rocking and rolling at the end of the season,” Williams said. “To be quite truthful, it’s one of the things that I said when I came here to ownership is, I wanted to help them have this feeling and I wanted to help them do that. I feel good about giving the opportunity for people to feel like it has been in other buildings where I’ve been.”
The team that Williams was a part of, which had success most recently, was when he was the New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator in 2011. The Saints finished that season with a 13-3 record, two years after winning the Super Bowl with Williams as defensive coordinator.
By the numbers
It has been 9 years since the Browns won their last game. They beat the Jaguars, 23-17, on Jan. 3, 2010, and have lost eight straight finales since then.
CB Denzel Ward (concussion) did not practice Wednesday or Thursday and remained in the league’s concussion protocol. He was injured late in the fourth quarter Sunday against the Bengals and missed the two games prior to that from the effects of another concussion.
DT Larry Ogunjobi (biceps) did not practice Wednesday. He has rested on Wednesdays for the past few weeks, but plays on Sundays. He expects to play in Baltimore.
Linebacker Tanner Vallejo (hamstring) did not practice Wednesday. He was injured against the Bengals.
C JC Tretter (ankle) has rested on Wednesdays since being injured Oct. 14, but he has started every game.
TE David Njoku (knee) was limited on Wednesday.