Will the Ravens' top-ranked run defense have Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys on upset alert?
The Dallas Cowboys’ (8-1) last-minute 35-30 win over the Steelers last Sunday was their eighth victory in a row and helped them maintain a two-game lead over the surging Giants in the NFC East. The victory also provided “America’s Team” with its third win of the season against an AFC North opponent. The Cowboys will now look to make it a clean sweep against the AFC North as they host the Ravens at AT&T Stadium on Sunday afternoon. The storied franchise also will have an opportunity to do something that it has never done before, beat the Baltimore Ravens. The Cowboys are 0-4 against the Ravens all-time in a series that dates back to 2000.
Meanwhile, Baltimore (5-4) took full advantage of a struggling Cleveland Browns team last week, cruising to a 28-7 victory. In doing so, the Ravens took over sole possession of first place in the hotly-contested AFC North. They are now tasked with doing something that they have failed to do all season, knock off a team from the NFC East. Baltimore is 0-2 so far this year against teams from the NFC East with losses to the Redskins and the Giants. The Ravens do enter Sunday afternoon’s contest riding the momentum of a two-game winning streak. Momentum they will certainly need against the red-hot Cowboys on the road.
Baltimore at Dallas
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 20 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Dallas -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Juggernauts Collide in the Ground Game
In what will be the most compelling matchup in Sunday’s game, the Cowboys will pit the NFL’s No. 1 rushing attack against the Ravens’ top-ranked run defense. Thanks to rookie sensation Ezekiel Elliott, and arguably the best offensive line in the NFL, Dallas is averaging a league-best 161 rushing yards per game to go along with 16 rushing touchdowns. Elliott became the first NFL back this season to reach the revered 1,000-yard benchmark with a monster performance against the Steelers last week. It will be a tall order for Elliott to find similar success against the vaunted Ravens defense on Sunday.
No team in the NFL has been stingier against the run than Baltimore. The Ravens sit atop the league in rushing yards per game (71.3), yards per carry (3.3) and fewest rushing touchdowns allowed (4). They have held seven of their nine opponents to 65 rushing yards or fewer, including a couple of teams that currently rank in the top five in rushing offense. Baltimore completely stifled the Browns’ rushing attack last week, holding them to just 33 yards on the ground. It was much of the same the week prior when they limited Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers just 36 rushing yards. It will be interesting to see how the Ravens fare against the best rushing offense they will face all season. Something or someone will have to give.
2. Can Joe Flacco Step Up?
It’s been a tough season so far for the Ravens’ quarterback. While he has thrown for 200 yards or more in every single game, Flacco has just nine touchdown passes, which also is his number of interceptions. The good news is that he is coming off of his best performance of the year, throwing for 296 yards and a season-high three touchdowns. He did throw two picks, and it was against a terrible Browns defense, but it’s still a step in the right direction. And maybe it will provide some much-needed momentum heading into another favorable matchup against Dallas.
The Cowboys have been fairly generous to opposing quarterbacks this season, giving up 263 passing yards per game and 15 touchdowns through the air. It also bodes well for Flacco that the Cowboys’ 21st-ranked pass defense has just four interceptions so far. A little help from the Baltimore run game would go a long way in making life easier for Flacco in the pocket, but that isn’t likely. The Ravens have one of the worst rushing offenses in the league (85 ypg), while the Cowboys are second against the run (83 ypg). That leaves Flacco, wide receivers Mike Wallace and Steve Smith Sr. and tight end Dennis Pitta primarily responsible for generating offense and putting points on the board. The matchup is promising, but will Flacco and the Ravens’ passing attack be able to take advantage?
3. Dak Prescott Put to the Test
Week in and week out rookie quarterback Dak Prescott seems to rise to the occasion and exceed expectations. But much like fellow rookie Elliott, Prescott will be in for the biggest challenge of his young NFL career against the Ravens. The Baltimore pass defense is ranked fifth, giving up just 210 passing yards per game. The ball-hawking Ravens have the second-most interceptions (11) in the league, and their pass rush could receive a big boost this week with the potential return of sack specialist Elvis Dumervil from a foot injury. Dumervil teams with current Ravens’ sack leader Terrell Suggs to give the defense a formidable pass-rushing duo.
Aside from one bad half against the Eagles, Prescott has shown little sign of weakness this season. He plays well beyond his years, which is a big reason why he has cemented his place as the Cowboys’ starting quarterback over veteran Tony Romo. Prescott is fortunate to have a solid supporting cast, including a stellar offensive line that has yielded just 13 sacks all season. But he has paved much of his own way to success. The Ravens won’t make life easy for Prescott, and he probably isn’t going to put up spectacular numbers this week. That being said, you have to like his chances to put in another solid performance given his track record so far.
There is no question that Baltimore’s defense is capable of keeping Dallas from going crazy on the scoreboard. What is questionable is a lackluster Ravens offense that will have a tough row to hoe against a Cowboys defense that is pretty good in its own right. Dallas is slightly vulnerable against the pass due to some key injuries in the secondary, so much of Baltimore’s hopes rest squarely on the arm of Joe Flacco and his veteran core of receivers. If Flacco is at his very best, the Ravens stand a decent chance of leaving AT&T Stadium with their third victory in a row. The problem is that even good performances have been a rarity for the veteran quarterback so far this season. The Baltimore defense is good enough to keep it interesting regardless of Flacco’s performance. However, the Cowboys avoid the upset at home to keep the momentum rolling with their ninth win in a row and first-ever against the Ravens.
Prediction: Cowboys 23, Ravens 20
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.