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It's been a long, winding trail for the Browns and Ravens


An NFL season reminds us of playing the 1990s computer game Oregon Trail.

During the epic, cross-country journey, there are sweeping changes that happen along the way.

One of your wagon's wheels might break, forcing you to dump some of your food. You or your siblings might fall ill, forcing you to stop in town at a market or even get a hotel.

In the NFL, a center might get hurt, forcing you to change the rhythm of your entire offense. Schemes, technique and talent are exposed by other teams, causing losses. And for 30 NFL teams, the season ends prematurely before they ever even reach the paradise that is Oregon.

At the end of an NFL season, everything about your wagon looks different than when you began. The Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns are perfect examples.

"It's been a long time - it seems like a lifetime - since we played them in Week 3, which was obviously a very tightly contested game," Browns coach Mike Pettine said about Baltimore's 23-21 victory. "It came right down to the very end. Needless to say, a lot has changed for both teams in the meantime."

What's different about the Browns and Ravens in Week 17?


*Not just a journeyman: Justin Forsett gashes defenses *

The running back eventually blossomed into the centerpiece of the Ravens offense, but nobody could've foreseen 1,147 yards and eight touchdowns from Forsett, who has carried the ball for five different teams over his seven-year career. Lorenzo Taliaferro was actually the main workhorse against the Browns, rushing for 91 yards and a touchdown. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak's system fit Forsett like a glove, meaning the Browns' struggling run defense will be tested again Sunday.

*Historic Pro Bowl season from C.J. Mosley   *

There's obviously no such thing as replacing Ray Lewis, but watching film of Mosely evokes eerily similar images to No. 52. How's this for special: On Tuesday, Mosley was the first-ever rookie in Ravens history to be named to the Pro Bowl. His 126 tackles don't represent how instinctive he is in coverage, and how hard his hits are as a run-stuffer. Baltimore found themselves a keeper.


Injuries galore

Missing from the first matchup this Sunday: Pro Bowler Tashaun Gipson, Alex Mack, Phil Taylor, Armonty Bryant, Miles Austin. Brian Hoyer, Andrew Hawkins and Joe Haden's respective statuses have yet to be determined. On the bright side, the long injury list has given players like Jordan Poyer, Ryan Seymour, Ishmaa'ily Kitchen, Taylor Gabriel, and now maybe even Connor Shaw a chance to spread their wings in a live game setting.  The secondary has been one of the units hit hardest by injuries, but it's actually improved since Week 3, sitting at No. 1 by a long shot in's pass coverage rankings.

*Quarterback quandary *

In Week 3, Hoyer was slinging the rock around the field, completing passes of 70, 43, 29, 23 and 21, all of which to different targets. Hoyer was 19-for-25 for 290 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. But Hoyer's hot streak eventually hit a snag, Johnny Manziel's first two starts resulted in losses and it appears as if Shaw could be under center against the Ravens because of Hoyer's and Manziel's respective injuries.

What's the same about the Ravens in Week 17?

• The secondary is still shaky, ranking 28th in the NFL. Lardarius Webb leads the unit, but outside of him, the consistency hasn't been there in 2014.

• Pettine called the Ravens quartet of outside linebackers the best in the league. Elvis Dumervil has 17 sacks on the season while Terrell Suggs has added 11.

• Joe Flacco will give you a few duds a year (like last weeks' four interception game against Houston), but for the most part, you can count on this pocket passer to keep the Ravens in games and make plays.

• Steve Smith was that high-energy piece on offense the Ravens needed. To prove it, Smith has 71 catches on the year compared to Torrey Smith's 45.

What's the same about the Browns in Week 17? Karlos Dansby is still a tackling machine and a daunting playmaker offenses have to scheme around.

• Joe Thomas still hasn't missed a snap in his career and became the first offensive linemen in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first eight seasons.

• Buster Skrine has held up his high-level of play for most of the season and will look to prove he can lock down Torrey Smith a second time.

• Spencer Lanning has been arguably the most consistent player on the roster. Lanning averaged 45 yards per punt Week 3 and it's hovered around that figure ever since.

(Photo credit: The Learning Company)

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