Saturday, December 20, 2008

Ravens-Cowboys Preview

The stars and pageantry will be on full display as the Baltimore Ravens and Dallas Cowboys add a final chapter to the storied history of Texas Stadium on Saturday night.

As if appearances from legendary stars such as Roger Staubach, Emmitt Smith, and Troy Aikman weren't enough, the two teams actually playing will be fighting for their respective playoff lives.

The 9-5 Ravens are currently the sixth seed in the AFC, but the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins currently hold the same 9-5 record. A loss would put the Ravens in the unenviable position of needing help in Week 17 to advance to the postseason.

The Cowboys (9-5) are currently the fifth seed in the NFC and need a win to remain in position for a playoff spot.

The Ravens will try to bounce back from an excruciating 13-9 loss to Pittsburgh after the Steelers scored a controversial go-ahead touchdown with 43 seconds to play. Unlike past Baltimore teams, these Ravens were very quiet in their comments regarding the officiating last Sunday, a reflection of coach John Harbaugh's message of discipline and focusing on the things they can control.

Dallas is riding high after an impressive 20-8 win over the New York Giants in which they held the second-ranked rushing offense to a meager 72 yards on the ground. Even the disgruntled Terrell Owens appears to be content for now.

The Cowboys' high-powered offense will be challenged by the Ravens' second-ranked defense that has the uncanny ability to confuse, and often times intimidate, the opponent.

Running back Marion Barber is a game-time decision with a lingering toe injury, but the Cowboys figure to struggle in the running game regardless of Barber's availability. Baltimore has the third-ranked run defense in the league.

The Cowboys will need quarterback Tony Romo's injured back to hold up against a tough defense. Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan will throw various blitzes and stunts against Romo in hopes of confusing the quarterback in his first encounter with the Baltimore defense. Romo is prone to making mistakes when a defense can keep him in the pocket while applying pressure.

A major factor will be the status of Ravens cornerback Fabian Washington who is questionable with a thigh injury. Washinton is expected to play but has admitted concern with how long his thigh will hold up on Saturday night.

His fourth-quarter exit from last week's loss was evident on Pittsburgh's final 92-yard drive for the game-winning score. Frank Walker took his place in the lineup, forcing Ryan to use a more conservative approach as Ben Roethlisberger picked the secondary apart en route to a touchdown.

If Washington cannot go, the Ravens will need to be creative in finding an answer in the secondary for Owens. Walker nor veteran Samari Rolle have the athleticism to cover the explosive playmaker.

The Ravens will have to keep a close eye on tight end Jason Witten. He will provide a matchup problem if the Ravens are unable to get to Romo quickly enough with their blitzing schemes.

After enjoying great success in the second half of the season, quarterback Joe Flacco has struggled in his past two games, throwing for a combined 249 yards and three interceptions against Washington and Pittsburgh.

The Ravens' offensive line will need to protect Flacco from Defensive Player of the Year candidate DeMarcus Ware. Though tackles Jared Gaither and Willie Anderson have played extremely well and possess great size, Ware's 19 sacks are more than enough to concern offensive coordinator Cam Cameron a great deal.

If the Cowboys are able to pressure the rookie quarterback consistently, Flacco will likely make mistakes, potentially turning the Texas Stadium finale into a laugher.

The return of running back Ray Rice will provide a lift as he provides a receiving threat out of the backfield in addition to the bruising running style of Le'Ron McClain. Former starter Willis McGahee has become a virtual non-factor in the running game.

The Ravens will try to control the clock with their running game, but the Cowboys' seventh-ranked run defense has shut down the running game of the Steelers and Giants in their last two games. If the Ravens cannot run the ball effectively, it will force Flacco to throw with Ware and company bearing down on him, something the Ravens do not want to do.


Both teams desperately need a win to keep their playoff destinies in their own hands.

The Cowboys figure to come out strong with the excitement and hoopla with the closing of Texas Stadium. The Ravens will need to ride the early wave of emotion and prevent Dallas from jumping ahead in the early stages.

Harbaugh's Ravens are too tough, both physically and mentally, to be overwhelmed by the emotions of the Texas Stadium finale, but they are catching the Cowboys at the wrong time.

The Baltimore defense will do an admirable job against the Cowboys' high-octane offense, but the offense will have trouble generating much of anything against the Cowboys' red-hot defense. Flacco will see better days, but he's not ready to steal a win against a defense as hot as this one.

The prediction: Cowboys 20-13

Can the Ravens keep their playoff destiny in their own hands? Or will the Cowboys put the Ravens' postseason hopes on life support? Leave your comments and predictions below.

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