In 11 games over five-plus seasons dating all the way back to 2008, quarterback Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens always found a way to beat the Cleveland Browns.
Seven of those contests were close, with Flacco and the Ravens making a play here or there when it counted most to separate themselves from the Browns. The Browns would play well at times, but not well enough. The Ravens played better, particularly in crunch time.
But all that changed Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium. The teams switched places.
Following Cleveland’s 24-18 victory, it was last year’s Super Bowl MVP and the defending Super Bowl champions who were left scratching their heads, wondering why they came up short.
In fact, the Ravens have been wondering that a lot lately. Following an encouraging 2-1 start that included a 14-6 victory over the Browns on Sept. 15 at Baltimore, the Ravens have lost four of their five games, including three in a row. The last four defeats have been by six points or less, a combined total of 14 points.
After a bye last week, the Ravens were hoping they’d be refreshed, rejuvenated and refocused and would get back on track by beating a team they’ve always been able to beat. But it didn’t happen.
“We know our players are good enough to win these games,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “We’ve just got to play better.”
The running game, a staple of the Ravens when they’ve made the playoffs the last five years, has run away, possibly in large part due to an offensive line that has struggled.
The Ravens rushed for just 55 yards in 21 attempts. Take away Flacco’s three scrambles for 25 yards, and that total dips to 30 yards in 18 tries, an average of 1.7 yards per carry.
Ray Rice, who has killed the Browns over the years, managed just 17 yards in 11 attempts. He’s used to having several scampers of 17 yards or more against the Browns, but his longest carry Sunday was for but five yards. He was getting hit by a horde of Browns defenders almost before he got the ball.
“We can’t run the ball right now,” Harbaugh said. “We tried to spread them out and run it, but they stayed in that seven-man box and that’s hard to run against.”
The Ravens struggled not only with their running game, but also with throwing the ball. Yes, Flacco completed 24 of 41 passes for 250 yards and two touchdowns with one interception, giving him a good-looking 82.4 quarterback rating, but this time he failed to make big plays in any number of key points in the game.
Part of the reason for that was that he could never feel comfortable in the pocket. He was sacked five times for 25 yards in losses. Many other times, he got rid of the ball with Browns in his face.
The Browns blitzed a lot, and Flacco and the Ravens couldn’t come up with the big pass to beat it. That elboldened the Browns and they just kept coming.
“We’ve got to run the ball better, and we’ve got to throw it better,” Flacco said. “We’ve got to stare it (the situation) right in the face and meet it.”
That’s easier said than done. If it were that easy, then the Ravens would have solved the problem by now. But It has lingered for a month and a half. Baltimore has won just one game since Sept. 22.
The Ravens are 3-5 at the halfway point of their year and trail the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals (6-3) by 2 ½ games and the second-place Browns (4-4) by a half-game. The Ravens host the Bengals next Sunday and finish the regular season by going to Cincinnati on Dec. 29.
Thus, there are opportunities for the Ravens to close the gap on the Bengals and challenge for a spot in the postseason, but it will really take some doing.
“It’s going to be challenge,” Harbaugh said. “The math says it’s going to be a challenge. We’ve got to start winning the close games.”
Added Flacco, “Being 3-5 is not easy to take. We’ve had some tough sledding. We’re not getting the job done.
“If I were looking in from the outside, I’d be surprised that we were 3-5. I wouldn’t have expected that.”
Then Flacco said something that put the whole situation -- the juxtaposition of the Ravens and Browns as they begin to head down the home stretch -- into its proper perspective.
“They’re a good football team. We’re a good football team. But right now, we’re not good enough.”