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Ravens @ Cowboys: The Stakes Are Huge

The Baltimore Ravens travel to Dallas to play the Cowboys in what will most likely be the last football game in Texas Stadium history. The stands will be packed, the game is on the NFL Network and many old time Cowboy greats will be in attendance for what should be an emotional evening for many. However, once the game starts, as the Ravens' Ray Lewis has said, it's just sixty minutes of football and the best team will win.

Personally, I'm sick and tired of all the love that is being generated this week about the Cowboys and their old, aging stadium, while the Ravens continue to get no respect based on their inabilities to win the big games on prime time television. At the same time, that's fine with me, because the only respect they need is from their opponents on the field and not from the so called "experts" on sports televison.

The word is that the winner firmly plants themselves in the playoff hunt while the loser is on the outside looking in. This is definitely true on most counts, but there is the opportunity to back into the playoffs for both teams if the others in the hunt falter along the way in these last two games. However, the best way to insure playing football in January is to take care of business yourself and that is exactly what the Ravens are looking to do tonight on prime time TV.

Baltimore knows it has its work cut out for them and are considered underdogs by four points, according to many betting sites. The Cowboys have a great passing offense and will be hard to keep off the scoreboard. That said, the Steelers managed to hold them to 13 points, but that was in the cold, damp weather of Heinz Field, while this game will be played on the slick surface in a much warmer and drier climate. While the Ravens pride themselves on playing hard hitting, turnover creating solid defense, the game will be won or lost with the play of the offense and of course, namely the Ravens rookie QB, Joe Flacco. Flacco has not looked too good the past couple of weeks, playing more like a rookie than the solid signalcaller he had looked like earlier this season. At the same time, the Ravens have still won seven of their last nine games, with their only losses to the NY Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers. Combined with other loss to the Steelers earlier this season, along with losses to the Titans and Colts, that is where they get their reputation of not being able to win the big games. They've beaten up on the weaker teams, people have repeatedly said, which is true, but have played three of the five losses very close. They have been blown out by the Giants and Colts and while the Giants did win that game by 20 points, there were four specific plays that doomed the Ravens and could have made a big difference in the outcome. But then again, no excuses, good teams make the big plays and that is what it takes to win in this league. Right now, until the Ravens prove they can win the close, tough games, they will continue to be placed in the categoriy of pretenders rather than contenders.

But which category are the Cowboys in? If you look at their recent streak, they are certainly considered contenders by the results, even with the close loss to the Steelers. However, over the course of the entire season, they stand side by side with the Ravens, both with 9-5 records. What should we expect Saturday night when all the hype ends and the hitting begins?

We all know what the Cowboys offense can do when they're clicking on all cylinders. If so, then this game will get ugly and be over early. Dallas has the big play capability and can put points on the board in a hurry. If the Ravens play back and do not put pressure on Tony Romo, he will pick us apart all evening and we will be out of it by halftime. However, Romo is prone to making mistakes and if the Ravens defense can harass him, then there is no reason that we can create the turnovers to level the playing field and disrupt their offense. The Cowboys will be limited in the running game with the questionable status of RB Marion Barber and their rookie replacement doesn't stand to get too many yards against the Ravens tough run defense. Therefore, it all comes down to the pressure from the front four and the secondary's ability to limit the big play and come up with the turnovers that this offense will desperately need.

Offensively, the Ravens are facing a very tough defense in the 7th ranked Dallas Cowboys. While the Ravens lead the NFL in interceptions, the Cowboys lead in sacks, around 20 more than the Ravens defense. Keeping DeMarcus Ware and his teammates out of Joe Flacco's face will go a long way towards the Ravens success. Adding an extra OT to block the Cowboys front four might buy Flacco a bit of time, but he will need to get rid of the ball quickly and have open receivers to throw to. Sending two receivers out at a time just won't get it done. Playing conservative football proved it won't work against the Steelers and wasn't the reason the Ravens got where they are in the first place. Opening the offense and throwing everything, including the kitchen sink at the Cowboys is going to be necessary to win this game. Trick plays, great execution and throwing downfiled is going to have be  a big part of the gameplan if the Ravens hope to keep up with the Cowboys.

I absolutely think the Ravens have the ability to go into Dallas and leave with a victory. The odds are certainly stacked against them, as there are a lot of things that need to go right for them to pull this one out. However, the Cowboys may actually be looking past the Ravens at the Eagles next week, much less getting all caught up in the hype surrounding the last game at Texas Stadium. Together, that makes them ripe for the upset and that is exactly what I am predicting. Predictable, huh, for the Ravens blogger, eh? Not really, as I've predicted the Ravens losing at Pittsburgh, New York and even Miami earlier this year. It's just that the stakes are higher and to me the defense of the Ravens is more opportunistic than the Cowboys and will prove that tonight. Ray Lewis will hit the Cowboys as hard as they have been hit all season and Ed Reed continues his bid for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. Here's predicting that while the Cowboys offense totally outplays the Ravens offense, it doesn't matter as the Ravens defense sets up our offense through the turnovers that this team has feasted upon all season. Dallas scores five times to the Ravens four, but the final score is all that matters.

Ravens:  24-23