When: Sunday, October 14 at 1 PM
Where: M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore, MD
TV: FOX and Direct TV channel 704
Radio: Sirius XM Radio channel 92
Betting odds: Baltimore -3.5
The last time these two teams faced off, Baltimore Ravens' John Harbaugh was a rookie head coach with a rookie quarterback, Joe Flacco, and the Dallas Cowboys were playing their final game at Texas Stadium. The Ravens took that game to the tune of 33-24 and have gone on to four straight post season appearances.
Meanwhile, after making the playoffs in 2008, Dallas has returned to the postseason only once, in 2010. A team stacked with talent, Dallas has continued to have its share of trouble in 2012 and comes out of their bye week 2-2, with losses to Chicago and Seattle.
The 4-1 Ravens are coming off two lackluster performances, albeit wins, against the 1-4 Kansas City Chiefs and the 0-5 Cleveland Browns.
While the Cowboys will look to improve to a winning record, the Ravens hope to further assert their dominance in the AFC North, where rivals Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers stand at 3-2 and 2-3, respectively.
Keys to the game
Can Baltimore's receivers beat press coverage?
Dallas will likely take lessons from Kansas City, who threw off the Ravens fast-paced offense and all but neutralized Baltimore's receivers. The Ravens' struggles against press coverage stand out in contrast to their success in the new up-tempo offense. Torrey Smith, who has emerged in his second year as a more complete threat at wide receiver, has been stymied when jammed up. The speedy youngster has to further crisp up his route running, and all of the receivers need to adjust their games to create better separation facing Cover 1.
Tight end Dennis Pitta, whose prolific production fizzled out in weeks four and five, may be a significant factor in beating the tight coverage. The Ravens will also count on Ray Rice to have a big presence early on, keeping the Dallas defense honest and opening the field up for Flacco and his wide range of weapons.
Can Dallas take advantage of the Ravens struggles to stop the run?
Dallas has not weighed heavily on the talents of running back DeMarco Murray, but they would be wise to attack the Ravens run defense on Sunday. The likely return of center Phil Costa should make life a bit easier for Murray. Fullback Lawrence Vickers also needs to step up his game. Murray ran for 131 yards week one against the Giants, but has only accumulated 106 total yards in his last three outings.
Concerns over the Ravens run defense peaked last week against Kansas City, when Baltimore gave up 214 rushing yards. The Ravens' susceptibility to the run is good news for Tony Romo, who has shouldered much of the blame for Dallas' struggles this season. If the Dallas offense can establish the run, Romo will be under less pressure and, presumably, will make fewer mistakes.
Who will win the turnover battle?
Dallas has had the bye week to try to fix their turnover problems. The Cowboys rank 30th in the league in scoring, with a measly 16.25 scoring average. The dearth can be attributed to the team's tendency to give the ball up, as they also rank 30th in the league in turnover differential at -7. The Ravens, in contrast, are ranked sixth in the league, with a turnover differential of +6.
The Ravens certainly should win the turnover battle based upon the trends, but Dallas will be focused on ball protection. The Ravens defense, ranked 24th overall, has counted on turnovers and big stops. If Dallas doesn't turn the ball over, the Ravens will struggle to stop the talent on the offensive side of the ball.
Both teams boast top receiving talents. Dallas' Miles Austin is especially effective in the slot, as is Baltimore's Anquan Boldin. Dez Bryant, whose talent is only mitigated by his inconsistency, is a dangerous speedy threat for the Cowboys, and Torrey Smith has established himself as a significant big play weapon for the Ravens. The tight ends for each team also demand attention.
Joe Flacco and Tony Romo are top quarterback talents, but neither one has gleaned much praise for consistency. This year, however, the numbers say that Flacco is more capable of orchestrating the win. Flacco has passed for seven touchdowns and thrown four interceptions, while Romo has notched five touchdown passes and eight interceptions.
The edge: Ravens
Ray Rice is widely considered to be the Ravens most explosive offensive player. Running behind probowl fullback Vonta Leach, Rice is a nightmare for any opposing defense. Rice, who has rushed for 419 yards this season, is also highly featured in the receiving game, and demands attention from defenses considering he's garnered 609 total yards in 2012.
DeMarco Murray has struggled to get his carries this year, and has acquired 237 rushing yards, with a total of 351 yards.
The edge: Ravens
The Cowboys rank first in the league in passing defense, while the Ravens rank 22nd. The Ravens secondary proclaimed that they were the best in the league before the season began. They have not backed the assertion.
Meanwhile, the Cowboy's revamped secondary has taken on the league and bested the best. Cowboys 2012 first round draft pick Morris Claiborne has been a major upgrade at cornerback. They also picked up former Kansas City cornerback Brandon Carr in the offseason. Once an area of weakness, the Cowboys' passing defense currently tops the charts, but the new corners don't deserve all the credit.
The Cowboys also boast two top notch pass rushers in DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. Ware, a perennial probowler, has notched five sacks this season. Even after missing time for an injury, Spencer leads the team with nine quarterback hurries.
The Baltimore defense has gone from the team that did not allow a 100-yard rusher in 39 games to the team that surrendered 125 rushing yards to Kansas City's Jamaal Charles... in the first half. While Dallas' rushing defense ranks 15th, middle of the pack, they don't seem as vulnerable as 20th ranked Baltimore.
Following the Ravens' harrowing defensive performance against Kansas City, local and national pundits have questioned Ray Lewis' ability to hold down the defense. Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees has dismissed the notion. According to Pees and CBSSports.com's Steve Prisco, the entire front seven made mistakes on a consistent basis to allow Charles free reign over the turf in the first half.
This is hardly good news for the Ravens, but in a positive twist, the unit was able to hold Charles to 15 yards in the second half.
The Cowboys enter the weekend with a gaping hole at punter. They may have one, they may not. Clearly, an NFL team will manage to field a punter, but the Cowboys question mark at the position is worth noting.
While the team tried out three different punters on Friday, owner Jerry Jones said there was no guarantee they would sign one of the three. Veteran Brian Moorman is out with a groin strain, and replacement Chris Jones is questionable after suffering a knee injury on September 23 against Tampa Bay.
Furthermore, should Jones sit the game out, Romo might take over holding the long snaps. After his famous bobble in 2006, most Cowboy fans would prefer their quarterback stick to tossing the ball.
The Ravens decision to take on rookie kicker Justin Tucker has proven to be a risk gone right. The young kicker has made 11 of his 12 field goal attempts during the regular season.
The Ravens haven't made waves in the return game in years, but they hope to limit mistakes, such as rookie returner Deonte Thompson's fumble against Kansas City. Baltimore also is on the lookout for Dez Bryant at the return spot for the Cowboys. Bryant has the potential to wreak havok on a Baltimore special teams unit that has been known to give up significant yards in recent years.
This week, after polling more than two dozen NFL players, owners, general managers, scouts, analysts and writers, ESPN came out with the toughest NFL venues. Number one on the list? Baltimore Ravens M&T Bank Stadium.
The decision came down to the facts. The Ravens have won a league-leading 14 straight home games, and also boast the greatest point differential between home and away games.
Ravens 27, Cowboys 24