Browns-Ravens matchup of­fers glance at fu­ture

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - SPORTS -

“I think right away, the older guys, and even us, we saw that we can make an im­pact on this team, and that’s what they brought us in to do,” An­drews said. “They were close last year; they were one game away [from a play­off berth]. So, they brought us in here to win this last game. That’s what it’s all about: con­tribut­ing.”

The same will hold true on the other side of the field, where the Browns will try to spoil a fes­tive day at M&T Bank Sta­dium be­hind Baker May­field, the brash rookie quar­ter­back who bested Jack­son for the Heis­man Tro­phy last year and has re­mained a step ahead of him this sea­son. May­field head­lines one of the most promis­ing young ros­ters in the league, fea­tur­ing ag­ile, pow­er­ful rookie run­ning back Nick Chubb and sec­ond-year pass-rush mon­ster Myles Gar­rett. Cor­ner­back Den­zel Ward won’t play be­cause of a con­cus­sion, but he made the Pro Bowl as a rookie.

“This is the first play­off at­mos­phere that our guys will see,” May­field told Cleve­land re­porters dur­ing the week. “We’re play­ing to prove who we are.”

It’s nat­u­ral, given this high-stakes fi­nale to an event­ful Ravens sea­son, to look back­ward.

Per­haps your mind drifts to New Year’s Eve 2017, when the Ravens came within 44 sec­onds of a play­off trip only to watch their hopes erased by Tyler Boyd’s 49-yard touch­down on fourth-and-long.

Or per­haps you think of 2012, when the Ravens last won the AFC North and went on the kind of play­off tear some na­tional an­a­lysts are pre­dict­ing for this year’s team.

Or maybe you’re fo­cused on the in­di­vid­ual play­ers, many of whom might never don a Ravens uni­form again if they fall to the Browns on Sun­day. Could this be the end for Ter­rell Suggs and Joe Flacco, two of the five great­est play­ers in the his­tory of the fran­chise? The temp­ta­tion to ele­gize is pow­er­ful. Yet it’s just as valid to view this game as a peek around the cor­ner at the fu­ture of the AFC North. With the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers com­ing to the last years of quar­ter­back Ben Roeth­lis­berger’s Hall of Fame ca­reer and the Cincin­nati Ben­gals stum­bling to­ward a pos­si­ble re­build, the Jack­son-May­field matchup could rep­re­sent the first chap­ter of a new world order.

The two quar­ter­backs have al­ready been friendly ri­vals for sev­eral years after they com­peted for the Heis­man in 2016 and 2017.

“We pretty much had a bond from there,” Jack­son said. May­field re­cip­ro­cated, call­ing the Ravens quar­ter­back a “game-changer.”

They don’t han­dle their busi­ness the same way. May­field is the more pol­ished passer, Jack­son the more thrilling run­ner. May­field makes head­lines off the field with his pep­pery comments. Jack­son keeps his words short and up­beat. But those who know both see an un­der­ly­ing sim­i­lar­ity.

“There’s some­thing about them that makes peo­ple grav­i­tate to­ward them,” said An­drews, who played with May­field in col­lege and has be­come Jack­son’s fa­vorite down­field tar­get this sea­son.

This will be the Browns’ first look at Jack­son as a starter. The Ravens al­ready faced May­field in Week 5, when he led Cleve­land to an over­time vic­tory. He’s only im­proved since then; the Browns have won five of their past six games, and in those vic­to­ries, the rookie has thrown 13 touch­down passes with just one in­ter­cep­tion.

“I think he’s a good, young quar­ter­back, and I think you’ll con­tinue to see him grow from year to year to year,” Browns in­terim head coach Gregg Wil­liams said. “But the big­gest thing is that he’s shown ev­ery­body he be­longs now, and I think the facets of his game, all ar­eas of his game, have been very good.”

With May­field liv­ing up to his sta­tus as the No. 1 over­all pick in this year’s draft and Gar­rett es­tab­lish­ing him­self as the best young de­fender in the di­vi­sion — Ravens coach John Har­baugh de­scribed him as a “po­ten­tial game-wrecker” that “you have to ac­count for on ev­ery play” — Cleve­land fans have gen­uine cause to be ex­cited about the Browns for the first time in decades.

A vic­tory in Bal­ti­more would give them a win­ning sea­son for the first time since 2007. The Browns are all the more fright­en­ing be­cause with May­field on his rookie con­tract for the next four years, they’ll have am­ple money to fill out their ros­ter.

De­spite Jack­son’s emer­gence, the pic­ture is more com­pli­cated for the Ravens. Of the rook­ies who’ve con­trib­uted heav­ily this sea­son, all but Young are of­fen­sive play­ers. The team’s newly minted MVP, cor­ner­back Mar­lon Humphrey, is in his sec­ond sea­son. Line­backer Matthew Judon and de­fen­sive tackle Michael Pierce are in their third. But many of the key play­ers on their league­lead­ing de­fense, which car­ried the Ravens against the Charg­ers, are vet­er­ans who might not be around in 2019.

The list in­cludes im­pend­ing free-agent lineback­ers Suggs, Za’Dar­ius Smith and C.J. Mosley, cor­ner­backs Jimmy Smith and Bran­don Carr, and safeties Eric Wed­dle and Tony Jef­fer­son. Even if the Ravens make a play­off run this sea­son, it’s pos­si­ble their de­fense, such a large part of their iden­tity, could look very dif­fer­ent in a few months.

Re­gard­less, the 2018 rookie class has de­liv­ered a fit­ting trib­ute to Ravens gen­eral man­ager Ozzie New­some, who will step aside after the sea­son. New­some traded back into the first round to pick Jack­son and sub­se­quently found im­me­di­ate con­trib­u­tors on days two and three of the draft.

“They’ve done a great job,” Har­baugh said. “We ask a lot of our rook­ies, be­cause that’s part of … that’s our pro­gram; that’s our plan. If you’re go­ing to get ready to play win­ning foot­ball in this league, you have to make a tran­si­tion. It’s a tough tran­si­tion from col­lege foot­ball to pro foot­ball. It’s a lot of hard work, and we want these guys play­ing as rook­ies, and this class has done a great job of re­spond­ing. … They’re a huge part of where we’re at and where we’re go­ing.”

That’s all in spite of a dis­ap­point­ing sea­son from the team’s first pick, tight end Hay­den Hurst, who be­gan the year with a frac­tured foot and has caught just 11 passes.

The rookie class came in un­der­stand­ing the Ravens’ frus­trat­ing re­cent past — three straight sea­sons with­out a post­sea­son ap­pear­ance for a fran­chise that used to tick off play­off wins rou­tinely. But they don’t feel be­holden to it.

“It’s been talked about this whole time, from play­ers to coaches,” An­drews said. “It’s some­thing that’s on ev­ery­one’s mind. We’re well aware of what hap­pened last year. There are a lot of hun­gry guys in this locker room.”

Ravens vet­er­ans cleared out quickly after prac­tice Fri­day, leav­ing the space largely to the youth corps. Brown wig­gled his hips to Kool & The Gang’s “Get Down on It” as Jack­son grinned ap­prov­ingly.

Jack­son was asked if the rook­ies have given their row of lock­ers a name.

“We don’t have one,” he said. “But maybe we need to make one. The rook­ies have been mak­ing

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