The Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Ravens, a pair of NFL teams that are muddling through disappointing seasons, will wrap up Week 13 on Tuesday night in a game that was moved because of the Ravens' COVID-19 issues.
For the Cowboys, their collapse is understandable. Starting quarterback Dak Prescott suffered an ankle injury in Week 5 and should have taken any dreams of the postseason along with it. The Cowboys have lost five of their past six games, slumping to 3-8, and own the NFC's worst record despite playing in its easiest division.
I use the word should here because the Cowboys remain in playoff contention despite it all. A win could bring them back into a tie with Washington and the New York Giants for the NFC East lead. Games left against Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and the Giants give hope a 7-9 record would be enough to create an unlikely playoff appearance behind the play of the few offensive stars they have left on the field: running back Ezekiel Elliott and wide receiver Amari Cooper.
Believe it or not, that's more than the Ravens can say about their own chances. At 6-5, last year's top seed in the AFC was eliminated from their divisional race with a 19-14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers Wednesday afternoon. They'll now try to make the Super Bowl as a wild-card team although they're on the outside looking in heading to Week 13. On paper, the schedule looks promising to catch up: Cleveland Browns aside, the combined record of their other four opponents remaining is an abysmal 10-33-1.
But the Ravens can't capitalize without their top players on the field. A COVID-19 outbreak has combined with injuries and inconsistency to put their season in peril. They're 1-4 in their past five games and may be without their top two quarterbacks for Tuesday night. While four of five losses this season are to the Steelers, Chiefs and Titans, the AFC's top three teams, the quality of the opponent you're playing doesn't matter. A loss is a loss, period, and the Ravens can only afford one more if they hope to simply make the postseason in 2020.
So can the Ravens get healthy in time to deliver a crucial home win? Or will the Cowboys defy the odds and catch a lucky break at the right time?
Dallas at Baltimore
Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 8 at 8:05 p.m. ET
TV: FOX/NFL Network
Spread: Ravens -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Who will be healthy for the Ravens come Tuesday night?
If you're betting on the Ravens, or simply just a fan, expect to be checking your phone constantly for notifications all the way up until game time. The Ravens' outbreak may have subsided, with no new players added to the COVID-19 list since Wednesday, but several remain in quarantine and unlikely to be activated for Tuesday night's game. ESPN.com reported four different strains of the coronavirus were found within the Ravens organization, including a highly infectious one that spread quickly enough to put 23 players on the reserve/COVID-19 list at one point.
That list had been reduced to 10 by Saturday, with the biggest variable among them Lamar Jackson. The most likely scenario is the quarterback gets activated this weekend after testing positive 10 days earlier. But even if he suits up against the Cowboys, it's uncertain how the loss of both practice and game time will affect him.
Just take a look at another former NFL MVP, Cam Newton, in his recovery from COVID-19 with the Patriots. In Newton's first four games back from the sidelines, he failed to throw a touchdown pass after leading the team to a 2-1 record in his first three games pre-virus. (The Patriots lost all four of those contests). Newton, like Jackson, is a running quarterback and you wonder how his stamina will be affected.
Tight end and leading pass catcher Mark Andrews also remains sidelined with COVID-19 symptoms. He's less likely to be at full strength Tuesday or even part of the active roster due to a preexisting condition as a Type I diabetic. Thankfully, the team expects no long-term effects from Andrews contracting COVID-19.
"I have not heard of any negative consequences of the diabetes with Mark up until this point," head coach John Harbaugh said earlier this week. "So that's a positive."
What if Jackson can't go or has problems completing the game? Backup Robert Griffin III was placed on injured reserve this week after tweaking his hamstring against the Steelers. It leaves 2019 sixth-round draft pick Trace McSorley as the only active quarterback on the roster, a major question mark after going 2-for-6 (although a 70-yard touchdown pass was one of those completions) against the Steelers in the second half.
2. Dez Bryant vs. the Cowboys
In a matchup with two underperforming teams, Bryant's first game against his former Cowboys teammates is grabbing a lot of the front-page headlines. He didn't even catch a single pass on two targets against the Steelers although I'd expect him to have a larger offensive presence Tuesday night.
"Whatever they have for me, I'm going to be prepared for it," Bryant said about his role. "I'm excited. I'm going to let the coaches do what they feel is best and I am just going to follow their lead."
Bryant, who has a lot of good friends still on the Cowboys, caught 531 passes for more than 7,000 yards with his former team. Can he thread through their defense and capture some of that old magic? It's just his third game back after three years away from the NFL's pace of play. Even with a leaky defense on the other side, it's hard to see Bryant making a substantial impact.
But you never know. Both Jackson and McSorley want to throw the deep ball and Bryant's speed gives them a new dimension to the offense. Especially if Andrews and others fail to suit up, Bryant will be given a few chances to strut his stuff.
3. Can the Cowboys show up?
There's no end to the Cowboys' problems on both sides of the ball. Their defense is giving up a league-high 32.6 points per game and is dead last in rushing yards allowed. The offense has scored more than 20 points just once since Dak Prescott went down while his fill-ins have thrown six touchdowns in six games. They've been picked off six times and failed to throw for 300 yards in any game (by comparison, Prescott threw for more than 450 yards three times before getting hurt).
There's a lot to dislike here. But in the past two games, there have been tepid signs of life. The defense sacked Alex Smith three times and held Washington to 156 passing yards on Thanksgiving. The week before, the team gained 376 yards on offense against the Vikings, the most in any game since Prescott was hurt while snapping a four-game losing streak. Andy Dalton, after missing time due to a concussion and COVID-19 protocols, seems to have a better grasp of the offense. On Thanksgiving, Amari Cooper topped 100 receiving yards for the first time in two months.
All of those are glimmers of hope. For the Cowboys to pull off the upset, though they need a complete game on all fronts. In particular, Ezekiel Elliott will need to get going against a Ravens defense that's shown some cracks; Derrick Henry ran for 133 yards and a touchdown against them just a few weeks ago.
Dalton also will need help from an underperforming supporting cast that includes wide receivers Michael Gallup (just 20 catches the last six weeks) and CeeDee Lamb. Lamb, in particular, has struggled to find chemistry with the QB change: he's totaled 217 receiving yards over the past six games.
The Cowboys will find themselves on a more level playing field through COVID-19. Andy Dalton also appears to be finding his footing just a little bit within the offensive scheme. They're capable of covering a touchdown-plus point spread which seems high considering the uncertainty that continues around the Ravens' outbreak.
That said, Baltimore's defense is still plenty good enough while the offense works through its inconsistency. All it might take is one big play by former Cowboy Dez Bryant, turnover-free football, and a couple of nicely-timed plays on defense for the Ravens to prevail in a must-win game at home.
Prediction: Ravens 24, Cowboys 20
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.