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NFL Preview - Dallas (2-2) at Baltimore (4-1)



By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - Future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis didn't seem to mind that the Baltimore Ravens failed to get into the end zone in last week's win at Kansas City.

All Lewis cares about is keeping the opposition off the scoreboard.

"Regardless of what they did the first half, look at the scoreboard," Lewis said after an ugly 9-6 win. "If they're not on the scoreboard, I don't care what people do against us."

The Dallas Cowboys had trouble reaching the scoreboard in their last game and had almost two weeks to think about it during their bye. Dallas will try to take advantage of a suddenly-dormant Baltimore offense when the two teams collide Sunday afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium.

The first-half stat that Lewis most likely was referring to centered around Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles, who racked up 125 yards rushing before halftime and was limited to just 15 yards over the last two quarters. But Kansas City couldn't get over the hump that was the Ravens' defense. Kansas City ran for 179 yards in the first half and was held to 35 yards in the final two quarters.

The Ravens are riding a three-game winning streak and sit alone atop the AFC North standings. Each of the victories during the streak have been by seven points or less, but Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh could care less about style points.

"There are a lot of things that we're not pleased with," Harbaugh said. "We're chasing our 'A' game every week. We want to have our 'A' stuff. It's like a pitcher. We want to have our best stuff every single week. We did not have our best stuff yesterday."

Harbaugh went on to add that he was glad the team can work on the mistakes with a win. And what coach wouldn't this day and age in the NFL? The great Bill Parcells said you are what your record indicates, and right now the Ravens are 4-1 and the class of the AFC. The Ravens have won 14 in a row at home, including the playoffs, last losing there on Dec. 5, 2010 versus Pittsburgh.

Baltimore could be in trouble of having that streak come to an end if it doesn't correct its problems on third down. It has converted 19 of its 57 chances on third down -- good enough for 24th in the NFL -- and finished a paltry 3-for-11 in Sunday's win that was marred by just field goals.

"Third down is the one that kind of keeps you on the field and keeps you going, but I think first and second down are just as important," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "Third down is obviously make or break if you get to that point, but first and second down have a lot to do with how successful you are."

The Cowboys are 2-2 this season and couldn't erase the memory of a Monday night debacle versus Chicago fast enough. Perhaps the bye week to get away and regroup will cure what's ailing Dallas.

Dallas' biggest issue in a 34-18 loss to the Bears was quarterback Tony Romo. Romo, who is playing for a contract extensions and quite possibly his job, was intercepted twice, with two of the picks resulting in defensive scores. The Cowboys managed 430 yards of offense, mostly through the air (389).

"This has got to be a wake-up call for us," Dallas tight end Jason Witten said. "I don't say that nonchalantly. You can't bounce back and forth like this and try to compete come December. You can't do it. We've been in that situation before. ... We thought long and hard about getting to 3-1 going into this bye. We have to take it one at a time, we have to regroup, get healthy, evaluate it, stick together.

"Ultimately it comes down to results. We know that."

Witten had a breakout game with a season-high 112 yards and a touchdown on 13 receptions. He had been bothered by a spleen issue the first few weeks.

Dallas will play two straight and four of the next five games on the road against Baltimore, Carolina, Atlanta and Philadelphia, and will enter a hostile environment Sunday. It will be tough sledding facing another formidable defense and game film doesn't lie.

If the Cowboys had trouble moving the chains against the Bears at home, imagine what it will be like in Baltimore.

Romo has to play better and protect the football. And the defense must tighten up its mistakes. Blown coverage, failure to apply pressure up front and coming up small in big situations killed the Cowboys last time out. Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall had 138 yards and a score on seven receptions, and Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr shouldered all the blame.

"I am frustrated, I'm sorry," Carr said. "It's just tough. I have to find a way to get those balls out, especially that deep ball. He made a good play on the ball."

The Ravens are eighth in passing (281.2 ypg) and Dallas is the top defender against the pass, holding opponents to just 169.5 yards per game. On the flip side, the Cowboys are fourth in passing (296.2 ypg) and will face Baltimore's 22nd-rated secondary, which is yielding 261.4 ypg.

Baltimore, which is 4-1 for a third straight year, has won all three of its meetings with the Cowboys, including a 33-24 road triumph in the previous matchup on Dec. 20, 2008. A win over the Cowboys would give the Ravens their best start since 2000, when they began 5-1 and went on to win the Super Bowl.

They hammered Dallas, 27-0, that season on Nov. 19.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

They say the run sets up the pass, and vice-versa. Romo needs the backfield to hit the ground running on Sunday and hopes to erase the memories of the debacle at home versus the Bears. Romo had arguably his worst game as a pro, but Dallas' run game has been struggling, too. The Cowboys are just 29th in the NFL with only 67.8 rushing yards per game and totaled 41 yards in the loss to the Bears, as DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones combined for 37 yards. It won't get any easier on the road against a stout Baltimore defense.

Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett isn't concerned with Murray's recent dropoff.

"His patience, his persistence, his toughness have all been good," Garrett said. "He just needs to understand we're going to keep trying to give him opportunities. He needs to keep doing what he's supposed to do and trust the other guys that they're going to do what they're supposed to do, and we'll get this running game going."

Romo hopes so as well. He needs to have bounce-back performance and limit the turnovers. And any NFL expert knows the Ravens feed off turnovers. But Romo is not alone in the passing game and needs to be on the same page with wide receiver Dez Bryant. A few miscues from the Dallas connection led to a few Chicago points a few weeks back. Harbaugh is not taking Dallas lightly.

"You talk about the Cowboys ... obviously they have a tremendously-talented quarterback who's capable of doing amazing things," Harbaugh said. "They maybe have the most balanced receiving corps in the NFL. They've got two home run- hitting running backs, so they've got lots of weapons and everybody knows that."

Baltimore running back Ray Rice had 102 yards on 17 carries, but it wasn't good enough to put his team into any touchdown scenarios. Rice will face a Cowboys defense rated 15th against the run (108.0 ypg). Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had a big run on third-and-long against the Chiefs, but passed for only 187 yards with an interception. The Ravens are eighth in passing yards (398.8), while Dallas is first in pass defense, allowing 169.5 ypg.

It will be interesting to see Baltimore receivers Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin go against Carr and the rookie Morris Claiborne. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler threw for 275 yards and found Marshall all day in Dallas. Perhaps Flacco can do the same with his weapons on his home turf.

Dallas hopes to have to have two defenders back in the fold in nose tackle Jay Ratliff and outside linebacker Anthony Spencer. Ratliff has been sidelined the entire season with an ankle injury and Spencer did not play versus Chicago with an injured pectoral muscle. The possibility of having those two back only makes it more difficult to contain defensive stalwart DeMarcus Ware, who has three sacks and three forced fumbles in his last two games.

"Getting Jay back is like getting three guys back in the nickel packages and the base packages, and teams actually gameplan for Jay Ratliff," Dallas defensive end Marcus Spears said. "So it will give other guys an opportunity to make more plays and have more success because he is in the game."

OVERALL ANALYSIS

The Ravens can't afford to get caught in a trend of not scoring touchdowns; they have a reputation in the AFC to keep up. Whether it was just a fluke or Kansas City was just that good on a particular afternoon, Baltimore needs to revive its passing game and play four quarters of solid defense. The Ravens will not get away with playing 30 minutes versus a Cowboys team desperately trying to save face. The Ravens have the advantage here as the host and have won 21 of their last 22 contests at M&T Bank Stadium. They have won 11 in a row at home against the NFC, going 8-0 under Harbaugh. Dallas, meanwhile, has been impressive after a bye since 1990 (16-7), but will join Washington in the basement of the NFC East when it is all said and done.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 17, Cowboys 13

10/11 13:05:29 ET


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