Ravens pop back into playoff picture

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

CLEVELAND -- The Baltimore Ravens never ask for your respect.

Ray Lewis & Co. typically demand it.

That was certainly the case Sunday when the Ravens came into Cleveland (3-5) and broke the heart and will of the Browns during a 37-27 victory. Baltimore (5-3) quietly won its third straight and catapulted itself right into the thick of the postseason race in the AFC, while simultaneously putting the season of a division rival on life support.

It didn't come easy.

Baltimore trailed 27-13 before scoring 24 unanswered points in the second half. It was as much a major meltdown on Cleveland's end as it was an inspirational comeback by the Ravens.

"I couldn't be more proud to be the coach of the Baltimore Ravens," coach John Harbaugh gushed afterward. "We talk about character and integrity and doing what's right -- to overcome the adversity that they did in the second half speaks about how big their hearts are."

Here is what we learned about both teams as Baltimore completed a season sweep of Cleveland:

Baltimore's rookies are growing up fast

Let's be frank. A rookie tailback and first-year quarterback are not expected to play this well on the road in a hostile environment.

"Yeah, they are," Harbaugh responded, "when they are drafted by the Baltimore Ravens."

Indeed, rookie signal-caller Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice were the most important one-two punch in Baltimore's offense Sunday. Rice ran for a career-high 154 yards, while Flacco is getting better with every start. The former Delaware star had 248 passing yards, two touchdowns and a passer rating of 109.6. Without the pair, Baltimore had no shot of leaving Cleveland with a victory.

Both players were unexpectedly thrust into starting roles this season. Flacco was given the job in Week 1 after Troy Smith came down with a viral infection and Kyle Boller injured his shoulder. Former Rutgers star Rice started Sunday because the team wanted to rest injured regular Willis McGahee.

Yet halfway through the season, both rookies are more than ready to contribute -- and contribute big.

"We haven't felt like rookies since the first couple of weeks," Flacco said. "We don't think about that. We come out here and play football. It's something we've been doing our whole lives."

Opposing runners beware

The Browns said during the week that they wanted to run the football against the Ravens to control the pace of the game. Baltimore took exception to that.

The Ravens' defense gave up 20 points (Cleveland also scored on a kickoff return), mostly through the air. But Baltimore allowed only 64 yards rushing total. Jamal Lewis was one of the players who said he wanted the ball this week and planned to have success against the heart of the Ravens' defense. The former Ravens back finished with just 49 yards on 19 carries (2.6 yards per run).

"My grandmother told me something a long time ago," Ray Lewis said. "If you're going to run up on a lion, make sure you're going to sneak up on him. Don't tell him you're coming. ... Right now we're the best defense in the NFL [against the run]. Nobody is going to run the ball."

The Ravens have an NFL-best 27-game streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher.

The AFC North race isn't over

Keep a close eye on the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-2) Monday night. Baltimore's win puts a lot of pressure on the Steelers to beat the Washington Redskins (6-2) on the road to maintain a one-game lead for first place in the AFC North.

The Ravens have a winnable road game next week against the Houston Texans (3-5), while the Steelers play host to the Indianapolis Colts. Overall, both teams play difficult schedules the rest of the way. But it appears the Dec. 14 meeting in Baltimore between these two heated rivals should have heavy implications. Pittsburgh won the first meeting, a 23-20 overtime decision at Heinz Field in September.

But the Browns are toast

Cleveland fumbled away a golden opportunity to get back into the postseason race. There's plenty of blame to go around. But after an 0-3 start to the season, the team basically had to play nearly flawless football for a very long time.

The Browns were able to win three of four coming in but still needed this key division game just to claw back to .500. After losing to Baltimore, this latest setback likely ends any chance of the Browns living up to the lofty expectations they had coming into the season.

The Browns do not own any tiebreakers over the Ravens or the Steelers, so barring an amazing hot streak or tremendous collapses by the Steelers and/or Ravens, the division title is out of the question for Cleveland. Cleveland still has wild-card hopes, but nine other teams in the AFC (including Baltimore) have better records.

Cleveland takes the field again on Thursday in a home game against the Denver Broncos. If Cleveland misses the postseason, this might be the loss the Browns will regret most.