(Sports Network) - Fresh off a thrilling last second win over fellow AFC powerhouse New England, the Baltimore Ravens will cap off a short week on Thursday by searching for their ninth straight win over rival Cleveland.
The game will also be the first this season play with the NFL's regular officiating crews after the league and the officials' union finally reached a tentative eight-year agreement to end a lockout that began in June.
The deal came on the heels of Seattle's controversial last-second win over Green Bay on Monday night in which the replacement officials struggled badly.
It still must be ratified by the NFLRA but commissioner Roger Goodell temporarily lifted the lockout so that the officials can work Thursday night's contest.
"Our officials will be back on the field starting tomorrow night," Goodell said. "We appreciate the commitment of the NFLRA in working through the issues to reach this important agreement."
Playing with a heavy heart on Sunday, Torrey Smith helped Baltimore exact a bit of revenge in a rematch of the AFC Championship Game from a season ago.
Smith lost his brother in a tragic motorcycle accident earlier in the day but suited up and recorded six receptions for 127 yards and two touchdowns. Meanwhile, undrafted rookie kicker Justin Tucker squeaked in a game-winning 27-yard field goal in a thrilling 31-30 win over the Patriots.
"We dedicate that victory to (Torrey's late brother) Tevin (Jones) and to the whole family," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said after the game. "I just think our team fights. Our team just fights, period. Sometimes you win, and sometimes you don't. Tonight, we won. I couldn't be more proud of a football team, and couldn't love a bunch of guys any more than we do right now."
Joe Flacco threw for 382 yards on 28-of-39 passing with three touchdowns and an interception against New England, while Ray Rice carried the ball 20 times for 101 yards and a score for Baltimore (2-1), which dropped the AFC Championship Game in New England when then-kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 32- yard chip shot that would've forced overtime.
The game was not without controversy, however, after Tucker's game-winning kick went straight over the right upright. Replays showed the kick was in fact good but New England had a hard time accepting things and Pats head coach Bill Belichick grabbed an official and argued adamantly for a review.
Field goals unlike other scoring plays are not reviewable although it's unlikely the play would have been overturned.
The struggling Browns are the AFC's lone winless team after losing their third straight contest last Sunday in the Forest City when Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for three touchdowns as the Bills defeated Cleveland, 24-14, to earn their first road victory since Week 1 of last season.
After strong performances a week earlier against the Cincinnati Bengals, rookies Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson regressed against Buffalo. Weeden threw for a touchdown late in the third, but his two interceptions in the fourth quarter hampered the Browns, who fell to 0-3 for the fifth time in the last seven seasons.
The Bills also effectively contained Richardson, who ran for a score, but only managed 27 yards on 12 carries. He also caught six passes for 24 yards.
"One, you have to give them a little bit of credit," said Weeden regarding the Bills' defense. "They made tackles at the line of scrimmage and were doing a good job against the run game."
Dating back to last season, Cleveland has now lost nine consecutive contests and 12 of 13 overall.
This game will mark the first time the Browns and Ravens will meet in Thursday night action. The Ravens own a commanding 19-7 lead in their all-time series with Cleveland, whose first edition of the franchise moved to Baltimore to become the Ravens prior to the 1996 season before re-entering the NFL as an expansion team in 1999.
Baltimore has recorded a home-and-home sweep of the Browns for four consecutive season and has won eight of nine over Cleveland at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Browns fell 20-14 in their last visit to Charm City on Christmas Eve last year and haven't won there since a 33-30 overtime verdict in 2007, which also happens to be Cleveland's most recent triumph over the Ravens.
"We've done this before; we've played Thursday after a Sunday, but we haven't played Thursday after a Sunday night," Harbaugh said of the quick turnaround. "Two things are important: preparation and recovery. One can't really take a backseat to the other."
Overall, the Ravens have won 12 consecutive games at home, the longest current home win streak in the NFL.
"It's going to be a huge challenge for us," Harbaugh said. "A division game, a big rivalry game, it's always a very emotional game against the Browns. We've played a lot of tough games against these guys. We expect it to be another one of those kind of games."
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
Cleveland is obviously pinning a lot on the shoulders on their two rookie first round picks, Weeden and Richardson, and both are struggling to find their NFL legs.
Weeden, like most rookie quarterbacks, has struggled with consistency and decision making. The Oklahoma State product was awful in Week 1 and well above average in Week 2 when he threw for a Browns rookie record of 322 yards at Cincinnati before taking a big step back against Buffalo.
He has excelled with his intermediate throws but has been inaccurate when trying to go down the field. Weeden seems to be late on most throws and will likely improve as he gets more used to the speed of the NFL game.
"I know he has talent," Harbaugh said when discussing Weeden. "What we are looking at right now are the things he does well and the way they're building their offense around him. He's big, he's smart, he has a great arm. He gets the ball out very quickly."
Part of Weeden's struggles should be blamed on his receivers, who haven't stepped up as playmakers. Many in Cleveland had high hopes for Greg Little, who can be electrifying after the catch but has struggled with dropped balls.
"We've been working with him consistently," Browns head coach Pat Shurmur said when talking about Little. "When he goes out in the game, he's got to catch the football. We have all the drills we do, we have a long list of things that we practice and we need to get better results. That's the reality of it."
Fellow starter Mohamed Massaquoi has been ruled out with a hamstring injury meaning rookie Travis Benjamin, who ran a solid post-corner route for a touchdown against the Bills, could get more looks.
"He's got good hands and he's fast." Shurmur said of Benjamin. "We've found ways in every game to try to get him the ball, whether it be reverses or attempts to throw it to him."
The line, led by All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas and former Pro bowl center Alex Mack, must do more to help Richardson, who has averaged just 3.5 yards a carry thus far. Richardson hasn't been explosive but has been a bell cow for Cleveland, leading the team in receptions with 11 and also rushing for 175 yards with two TDs on the season.
"We have to get Trent (Richardson) to the second level and get him past the line of scrimmage and not make him battle as much at the line of scrimmage," Browns offensive coordinator Brad Childress said. "Obviously move it past the defensive line and on to the linebackers and second level because that's to me where he can end up doing most of his damage."
The Ravens defense is coming off an uncharacteristic poor performance against New England and seems a little off without the consistent pass rush that the injured Terrell Suggs (Achilles) usually provides.
Future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed still bring plenty to the table, however, and both Weeden and Richardson will certainly have a tough time navigating Baltimore's defense. Weeden, particularly, must be aware of Reed, one of the NFL's true ballhawks.
"You don't scheme around (Reed) because he's got a mind of his own," Childress said. "He and to me a guy like (Troy) Polamalu show up in places and they're very extremely instinctual and obviously have been tremendously productive."
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
With Lewis and Reed still around it's tough to call Baltimore Joe Flacco's team but Harbaugh has finally given his strong-armed quarterback the freedom to make plays down the field on a consistent basis and it has worked like a charm.
The Ravens have produced 19 passes of 20-or-more yards this season, the most among all NFL teams. Flacco has spread the ball around to seven different targets for those explosive plays: WR Anquan Boldin (2), TE Ed Dickson (1), WR Jacoby Jones (5), TE Dennis Pitta (3), Rice (2), Smith (5) and WR Deonte Thompson (1). Smith, in fact, is deadlocked with Carolina's Steve Smith atop the league with five receptions of at least 25 yards.
Rice remains one of the game's most well-rounded backs, averaging nearly 6.0 yards per carry and hauling in 14 passes so far, good for second on the team. His caddy, rookie Bernard Pierce has also shown flashes. Pitta, meanwhile, has become Flacco's security blanket, snaring 18 receptions while being targeted 31 times.
The Browns rank among the league leaders in several defensive categories. Cleveland is tied for fifth in the NFL with nine sacks, tied for fifth with five interceptions and is sixth in total takeaways with seven.
The Browns' front seven is led by middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, the only player in the NFL with at least two sacks and two interceptions this season. A true playmaker, Jackson also leads the Browns in sacks (3) and is just a half sack shy of his career-high.
After missing the final eight games last season with a foot injury, defensive back T.J. Ward has returned to lead the team with 24 tackles, while adding one sack and a forced fumble this year.
This will be the third of four weeks for the Browns without cornerback Joe Haden, however. Cleveland has pressed on without its suspended star, using veterans Sheldon Brown and Dimitri Patterson but it's clear the team can't do as much gambling with Haden on the sidelines.
"You never want to be without your starting corner, obviously," Cleveland defensive coordinator Dick Jauron said. "Clearly it has some effect, but again, we like our guys."
Under John Harbaugh, the Ravens have won 20 of their last 21 regular season home games and are 29-5 in games played in Baltimore, ranking as the NFL's best home team over that period.
In the Ravens' current eight-game run against Cleveland (all under Harbaugh), Baltimore has outscored the Browns by a gaudy 203-91 margin, and the Ravens have averaged 351.3 yards of offense while holding Cleveland to 232.8 ypg.
Translation? This will not be pretty.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Baltimore 27, Cleveland 10
The Sports Network