It was a strange experience with no fans at M&T Bank Stadium and the teams kicking off a regular season without having played a preseason. But the game itself wasn't strange in the least. The Ravens looked a whole lot like the team that motored through the 2019 regular season setting records and winning games, and the Browns also played to type, giving a mistake-filled performance and getting blown out. Honestly, it probably mattered that the Browns have new coaches and a batch of new players still getting to know each other, while the Ravens have the same coaches and most of the same contributors, starting with quarterback Lamar Jackson, the reigning league MVP, who carved up the Browns with a brilliant passing performance certain to keep future opponents up at night. But continuity wasn't the only factor that produced this blowout. The Ravens' offensive playmakers were far more explosive, and they covered better and tackled better on defense. They weren't entirely perfect, but bottom line, they used the strange occasion to reaffirm that they rank among the NFL's elites.
It's just one game, but something tells me the Ravens might not challenge the NFL's single-season team rushing record, which they set last year. I'm not suggesting that because their ground game has taken a step backward, but rather, because Jackson and the passing game seemingly have taken the step forward that the organization expected, which could result in a more balanced attack. The passing game certainly was the difference-maker in this game. The score was still close when Jackson started firing completions to Mark Andrews, Hollywood Brown and Willie Snead IV on touchdown drives of 99 and 69 yards just prior to halftime. The receivers were open, but it was Jackson who made the plays, using his legs to avoid pressure while exhibiting an enhanced level of touch on his passes. Yes, he tossed a league-high 36 touchdown passes a year ago, so the air game was hardly a liability. But it was more polished Sunday, better at stretching the field. The tight ends caught more passes than the receivers in many games in 2019, but not so Sunday. Led by Brown, the wideouts posted 13 of the team's 20 receptions.
It was somewhat amazing that the Browns still had hope midway through the second quarter, as they had already committed a bunch of the kinds of mistakes that can doom a team - two turnovers, a failed fake punt, a missed extra point and several key penalties. But they only trailed by four and had the ball, a first down at the Baltimore 34 and designs on taking the lead. After that offensive series went awry, Cleveland's punt was downed at the one, leaving the Ravens 99 yards from the end zone and the Browns still thinking they had a chance. But that belief didn't last long. The Ravens covered those 99 yards in 10 plays to take command of the game with a touchdown. The Browns retaliated with what ended up being their last gasp - a long drive that ended with a key drop by Odell Beckham Jr., followed by a missed field goal. The Ravens took possession and drove 69 yards to a touchdown in just 35 seconds. Suddenly, the game was no longer close. This was the math: Too many mistakes by the Browns plus too much offense from the Ravens equals game over.
The Ravens really liked their 2020 draft class from the outset, but it was more than fair to wonder whether the coronavirus pandemic might keep them from making a big difference in their first year, as they were unable to benefit from normal spring practices or any preseason contests - events that usually are major building blocks for first-year players. But if this opening game is any measure, the 2020 class didn't suffer in the least. It's hard to remember a Ravens opener in which the rookies had more impact. On defense, Patrick Queen was the leading tackler, forced a fumble and posted a sack. Malik Harrison also was among the top tacklers. On offense, J.K. Dobbins scored a pair of touchdowns and Tyre Phillips started at right guard and held up well. On special teams, Devin Duvernay returned kickoffs (he also caught a pass) and James Proche II returned punts. "We're (all) rookies but we're trying to make a statement," Queen said. They certainly did. I guess it's possible the absence of fans made the scene a little less intimidating, but no matter. "They were composed ... the moment wasn't too big for them," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said. Impressive.
Short takes: The Ravens' new-look run defense didn't have the debut it wanted, as the Browns averaged 5.1 yards per carry on 27 rushes. It didn't really matter once the Ravens had a big lead, and the Browns' ground game is going to give a lot of opponents trouble this season, but the Ravens are expecting better ... The Ravens' offensive line was the scene of some drama. You had Phillips winning the battle to replace Marshal Yanda at right guard. You had Matt Skura starting at center, capping a remarkable comeback from his major knee injury just 10 months ago. Finally, you had All-Pro tackle Ronnie Stanley going out with an ankle injury, just what the Ravens didn't want. But it isn't a serious injury, Harbaugh said ... You won't see many better catches than Andrews' one-handed grab for the Ravens' first touchdown of 2020 ... It was a relatively quiet day for the Ravens' rushing attack, which didn't surpass 100 yards until late in the fourth quarter. Dobbins, Mark Ingram II and Gus Edwards combined to rush for 68 yards on 21 carries ... This makes 13 straight regular-season wins for the Ravens.