BALTIMORE — The Baltimore Ravens couldn’t have asked for a better scenario heading into Sunday’s AFC North matchup with the Cleveland Browns.
“At the beginning of the season, if we say we control our destiny going into the last game, we can win the division, we’d have all signed up for that,” coach John Harbaugh said this week.
The situation would have been even more ideal if these were the same old awful Browns, who went 1-15 in 2016 and 0-16 last year.
Cleveland (7-7-1) has rattled off five victories in its past six games, including the past three in a row. Striving to complete their first winning season since 2007 and eager to play the spoiler’s role against the team that left Cleveland for Baltimore after the 1995 season, the Browns have plenty of incentive to beat the Ravens (9-6).
“We would obviously love to have this one and end the season on a very, very high note,” rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “Obviously, disappointing somebody else’s playoff hopes, that is motivation, too.”
Browns interim coach Gregg Williams, who replaced Hue Jackson in late October, called it “our playoff game.”
The guidance of Williams and the stellar play of Mayfield have turned things around for the Browns, who beat Baltimore 12-9 in overtime on Oct. 7 when Jackson was their coach and Joe Flacco was the Ravens quarterback.
A month after that game, rookie Lamar Jackson took over at quarterback, the defense stiffened, and the Ravens used a 5-1 streak to move past Pittsburgh into first place.
Now, Baltimore is poised to end its three-year hiatus from the playoffs.
It’s a familiar position for the Ravens, who blew a win-and-they’re-in finale last year when they yielded a touchdown on a fourth-down play against visiting Cincinnati in the final minute.
This time, they’re looking for a different ending.
“Definitely, last year doesn’t sit well with us,” cornerback Brandon Carr said. “We had a prime opportunity to extend our season, and we failed at it. We didn’t finish the job, so that’s why this year the art of finish is big for us.”
Some other things to know about the Browns-Ravens game:
Baltimore leads the series 29-10 and is 18-3 against the Browns under Harbaugh, who took over in 2008.
Cleveland’s victory in October was its first over the Ravens since 2015, but seven of the past 11 games have been decided by eight points or fewer.
“The Browns have always played us tough, even when they weren’t winning a lot of games,” Ravens guard Marshal Yanda said.
Here’s a new one: The Steelers — and their fans — are pulling for the Browns, one of their bitter rivals.
If Cleveland can knock off Baltimore and Pittsburgh takes care of Cincinnati, the Steelers will win the AFC North and slide into the playoffs.
“It’s the NFL, man. It’s crazy,” Browns guard Joel Bitonio said of the unusual season-ending scenario. “Any other week I’m sure people would’ve been like, ‘What are you talking about?’ But it’s how the NFL works. They need us to win and it’s part of it. I don’t think it changes how we attack the week or anything like that, but it’s a cool story.”
Cleveland wide receiver Breshad Perriman returns to Baltimore, where he struggled after the Ravens picked him in the first round of the 2015 draft.
Perriman sustained a knee injury on the first day of training camp in 2015, was placed on injured reserve in November and finished the season without a catch.
He had 33 catches in 2016 and 10 last year before being released in September. The former Central Florida standout had a brief stint with the Redskins before latching on with Cleveland, where he’s caught 13 passes for 295 yards and a score.
“Before the game it will be nice to say hi to him, and then we’ll defend him,” Harbaugh said. “We have a lot of respect for him as a player.”
Mayfield and Lamar Jackson first bonded as Heisman Trophy hopefuls in New York. When Jackson won college football’s biggest honor as Louisville’s quarterback in 2016, Mayfield finished third. One year later, Mayfield added to Oklahoma’s strong Heisman legacy by beating out Jackson, who finished third.
The experience brought the quarterbacks closer.
“I know Lamar and his family pretty well, two years in a row going to New York City and throughout the draft process, as well. Great guy,” Mayfield said. “He is someone who is fun to be around.”