This Saturday's game in Dallas is a pivotol game for both teams. There is a pretty decent chance that the winner of this game goes to the post season while the loser will most likely fall out of the playoff race, or at least to the bottom of the barrel of those teams still in the hunt. Therefore, while this is a must-win for both teams, only one can do so. How then, can the Baltimore Ravens go into Texas Stadium for the final game in its histroy, and beat a Dallas Cowboy team that is as desperate for a win as they are? There is a lot of "if's" to overcome if they want to emerge as the front runner for the final Wild Card slot in the AFC and send the Cowboys to an embarassing defeat in front of their home fans.
Usually, the key to the game lies in the trenches on both sides of the ball. That is where I usually look for an advantage or disadvantage for the offense and defense. Last week, I spoke about the bouncing ball, as both the Ravens and Steelers defenses seem to capitalize on the tipped pass which leads to field position and easy points. This week we'll go to another area of contention that I believe holds the key to victory for the Ravens over the Cowboys.
It's the clock! The time clock and more notably the all important statistic, time of possession. The Ravens have owned that statistic in their victories and while they've won that battle in some of their losses, the overwhelming wins have had the same overwhelming difference in time of possession. Winning the battle for the clock means that your offense keeps the ball the longest and not only tires out the opponents' defense, but keep the opponents' offense off the field. This will be the key in the Ravens ability to beat the Cowboys. We will need to keep the Dallas offense off the field as much as possible. In all the Cowboys losses with Tony Romo at the helm, either before or after his injury (with the exception of Pittsburgh), Dallas has gotten their offensive stats, yardage and even points. The Steelers game was the only game where they were totally shut down offensively for much of the game and that was due not only because of the Pittsburgh defense, but the cold and rotten weather that the Cowboys did not react well to. The Ravens have the defensive ability to disrupt the Cowboys offense just like the Steelers, but playing in Dallas will not make the weather a factor, at least for the Cowboys.
Therefore, the Ravens offense will have to move the ball, control the clock and most importantly, as a result of the aforementioned, they must score points of those long, ball controlling drives. Scoring 13 points will not be enough to beat the Cowboys, as the Dallas offense puts points on the board at home and will do so against even a tough Ravens defense. Dallas has averaged over 27 points per game at Texas Stadium and only once, in a 13-9 victory over Tampa Bay, have they been held to less than 20. They are 6-1 at home, with their only loss to the Washington Redskins in week four, when Romo still had 300 yards passing in a 26-24 defeat. So if the Ravens plan to win the time of possession battle, they better expect to put up a bunch of points if they want to win the battle on the scoreboard.
The Ravens certainly can score this season and have proved it by averaging over 24 points per game on the road. However, they've averaged only 11 points per game in their three road losses (Pittsbrugh, Indy, Giants), which will just not get the job done this Saturday in Dallas. The Cowboys defense ranks 7th overall (7th-rush; 8th-pass; 12th-points allowed) but they can be scored upon, giving up just over 20 points per game. This is where the Ravens offense needs to take advantage of, and make the plays downfield to put points on the board. No more settling for FG's in the Red Zone by remaining conservative once we get into scoring position. This team needs to pull out all the stops on offense and make sure QB Joe Flacco has the time and gameplan to make the plays. Dallas' DeMarcus Ware has 19 sacks and is looking to break the all-time season sack record of 22.5. He needs to be kept from getting that record against Jared Gaither, Adam Terry and even Todd Heap if necessary. Overloading his side of the offensive line can help us as much as it did by neutralizing Pittsburgh's James Harrison last week. However, this means less pass receiving options if Heap stays in to help, which puts added pressure on the wide outs and increased the need for significant contributions from others, such as Yamon Figurs and Marcus Smith, both of whom are capable of making the big play if called upon. Flacco can't rely on the 8-10 yard curls to Derrick Mason all game and must go over the top, if only to keep the Cowboys secondary honest. Le'Ron McClain needs to continue what is now a Pro Bowl season by ripping off huge chunks of yardage and Willis McGahee needs to atone for the past two worthless games by playing a big role and redeeming himself, while proving to the team and fans that he has a place in this offense now and in the future, as this team desperately needs his contributions. Hopefully, Ray Rice will have recovered and can add a different perspective to the offense as well.
Defensively, the Ravens cannot play the bend-but-don't-break pass defense that doomed us last week vs. Pittsburgh. Dallas' receivers are too big, too fast and too good to expect that style to limit their damage. They are as good as anyone in the league at getting their YAC. Allowing them to slant across the middle will feed right into their gameplan as it has for the teams that have been able to move the ball against us. The health of CB Fabian Washington is a major key in the ability to limit their success. Don't expect the Ravens to shut down the prolific Dallas passing game, only to slow it down. Tony Romo is prone to making mistakes and while he throws on the run as wll as anyone, he has proven to be rattled by tough defenses and hard pass rushes. The Ravens have the ability to throw both at him at if they are able to do so, expect the turnovers that will be critical to the Ravens offensive success.
Winning the turnover battle will feed right into winning the time of possession. The combination of events that lead to the battle for control of the clock will determine the victor in this game. The Ravens absolutely have the ability to accomplish this and the Cowboys know it. Whether or not the Ravens can make it a reality remains to be seen. This is now by far the Ravens toughest and most critical test of the season. while no one expected them to be playing a meaningful game at this point of the season, they've earned the right to be doing so. Now is the time to earn the right to play in January as well. It all begins, or ends, this Saturday night in Dallas.
PS-(Added 12/18, 6pm EST): Colts all over the Jags tonight!