Ravens at Cowboys Game Preview

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With an AFC Wild Card berth in reach, the Ravens head to Texas to take on the Dallas Cowboys in the last-ever regular season game at Texas Stadium on Saturday night (8:15pm ET) on the NFL Network (and WBAL).

BR.com offers a look at Baltimore's Week 16 opponent.

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Rankings

Total Offense - 8 (349.1)   Total Defense - 7 (287.0)

Rush Offense - 19 (110.3)   Rush Defense - 7t (93.1)

Pass Offense - 8 (238.8)   Pass Defense - 193.9 (8)

Points Per Game - 13 (23.7)   Points Per Game - 12 (20.6)

Sizing Them Up

Just when teams were counting the Cowboys out after a 20-13 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 14 led to reported in-fighting among Dallas' offensive stars, the 'Boys came back and soundly defeated the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants last Sunday.

The win featured smiles and hugs on the sideline, as players and coaches - and even owner Jerry Jones dismissed any disruptions in the locker room.

Now, in the final game at the historic and beloved Texas Stadium, where Dallas is 6-1 on the year, the Cowboys will be primed to close out the venue in style.

Dallas is led by quarterback Tony Romo, who seems to have recovered from a broken pinkie on his throwing hand sustained Oct. 12. After missing three games and then playing three games with the injury (1-2), he came back healthy to go 4-1, throwing for 255.6 yards per game as the Cowboys averaged 356.0 total yards and 23.2 points.

Romo has three of the best at their position as targets in wideouts Terrell Owens and Roy Williams, along with tight end Jason Witten. Since 2006, Romo and Owens have hooked up for a league-best 33 touchdowns, and "T.O." leads the team with 886 receiving yards (58 catches) and nine scores.

Williams, who was acquired on Oct. 14 by the trade deadlines, is a former 1,000-yard receiver, while Witten was just voted to his fifth-consecutive Pro Bowl this week.

At running back, the Cowboys will be without explosive rookie Felix Jones to complement 225-pound battering ram Marion Barber, but it seems fellow rookie Tashard Choice has stepped in ably. Barber paces the team with 233 carries for 872 yards, adding seven touchdowns, but the 5-foot-10, 208-pound Choice has racked up 326 yards on 62 attempts (5.3 yards per carry) in only eight games where he's played from scrimmage.

Defensively, the Cowboys are one of the NFL's feared units. Head coach Wade Phillips recently took more control over the 3-4 system, and Dallas has responded by only allowing four touchdowns in the past five contests. And, two of those came in the fourth quarter or a blowout win over the San Francisco 49ers.

Outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware leads the league with a whopping 19 sacks, his third straight campaign with double-digit sacks. Ware is a Pro Bowler this year, along with defensive tackle Jay Ratliff, whose 7 sacks are tied with linebacker Greg Ellis for second on the team.

The majority of Dallas tackles are swallowed by middle linebackers Bradie James and Zach Thomas, who combine for 329 total stops.

In the secondary, cornerback Terence Newman has the most interceptions, with four. Newman had a monster game last week against the Giants, with a season-high-tying seven tackles. He also posted two pass breakups and two picks.

What's Up?

Mickey Spagnola at DallasCowboys.com says the Cowboys' midseason lull may have been just the wake-up call the team needed.

"Losing three of four games and seeing yourself 4-3 and heading toward last place in a division most had given you at the start of the season, has a way of jolting your consciousness better than any dose of ammonium carbonate." 

Former Cowboys head coach Chan Gailey is partially to thank for the team's current success, says Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News, because Gailey's offense at Georgia Tech prepped rookie RB Tashard Choice to step in and contribute immediately.

*"Gailey's pro-style offense – at least the one he ran at Georgia Tech until being fired after last season – prepared Tashard Choice well for the NFL. And in two December appearances in place of a gimpy Marion Barber, Choice has powered the Cowboys' running game."
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Morning News columnist Todd Archer points out how valuable veteran safety Keith Davis, winner of the team's Ed Block Courage Award, is both for his leadership on the team and for playing through a myriad of sprains, strains, bumps and bruises.

"The Cowboys need Davis. All good teams need a guy like Davis. Not because he's the most physically gifted player. He has limitations. But on Sundays, when it matters most, he is with you."

The outstanding defense being played by the Cowboys is thanks to head coach Wade Phillips' taking a more hands-on approach, according to Clarence E. Hill, Jr., of the Fort Worth Star Telegram.

"It's no coincidence that the Cowboys' defense took a huge step forward once Phillips took a more hands-on approach. Although the players say defensive coordinator Brian Stewart still calls some plays and plays a very important role in what they do, this is Phillips' 3-4 scheme, and his increased presence makes a difference."

Awards

Offensive – Simply stated, Romo makes this offense go. In three mid-season games when the signal-caller was out with a finger injury, the Cowboys averaged 13.7 points and went 1-2. In the 11 games Romo has started, the Cowboys have scored nearly double that at 26.5 points per game and hold an 8-3 mark. Still not convinced? Take a look at last week's performance, where Romo gutted through an early back injury to go 20-of-30 for 244 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions against the New York Giants who, you may remember, are the defending Super Bowl champions.

Defensive – Ware presents a daunting task, to say the least, holding the league lead with 19 sacks in 2008. Through 14 games, Ware has been held without a sack exactly once (Tampa Bay, Oct. 26). The first Cowboy to post three straight seasons of 10-plus sacks since Randy White (1983-85), Ware has notched three sacks in a game on three separate occasions this year.

Emerging Star

Running back Tashard Choice has emerged as a more-than-capable reliever for Marion Barber. Making the first start of his rookie campaign two weeks ago, the fourth-round draft pick hauled the ball 23 times for 88 yards against the Pittsburgh Steelers. For an encore, he gashed the Giants for 91 yards on nine carries last Sunday, including a 38-yard scamper for his first touchdown.

Key Matchups

Ravens OLB Terrell Suggs vs. Cowboys LT Flozell AdamsThis week, both head coach John Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Rex Ryan have spoken about the importance of pressuring the quarterback. They want to see Romo take some sacks and knockdowns to throw him off his game and force him into hurried throws. Suggs, fresh off being named to the Pro Bowl, figures to be a big part of that strategy. Standing in his way? Adams, who not only is a mountain of a man at 6-foot-7 and 340 pounds, but is a four-time Pro Bowl performer.

Ravens WR Derrick Mason vs. Cowboys CB Terence NewmanLast week against the Giants, Newman spent most of the day covering Dominik Hixon. Hixon managed to draw a 32-yard pass interference call against Newman early in the game, so how did the Dallas corner respond? With two interceptions. Mason, who has led the team (or shared the team lead) in receptions in 11 games this year, stands 106 yards shy of his seventh 1,000-yard season and 82 yards short of 10,000 career receiving yards.

Quotable

Phillips on the qualities that set Ware apart:"He's relentless. He's a great athlete, certainly, but he goes hard every play. I think the thing that sets him apart is that he's not a pass rusher only; he plays the run very well. I think people will tell you that. He's not taking off up the field every play to rush the passer. Some guys are pass rushers only, but he's not. He's a complete player and a special pass rusher."

Romo on the Cowboys' ups and downs this year and rallying to make a push to the playoffs:"The NFC is going to take a really, really good record this year [to get into the playoffs]. I don't know that 10-6 gets you in as of right now. I think you need to be 11-5 to solidify a spot. Shoot, if a couple of teams all win two games in a row here, there's going to be an 11-5 team out. So, it's that type of season. You have to win, you know where you're at, and it's about going out and winning football games. We've treated this last five-game stretch we've had like our backs are to the wall, like playoff games, and we've come out of it 4-1. So, we're doing something right here."

Duff's Take

In the last ever game at Texas Stadium, there will certainly be a lot of emotion surrounding Saturday's showdown, both in the stadium, in the state of Texas and even around the nation.

But, the Ravens aren't thinking about any of that, I'm sure. It's pretty easy to see why this game is incredibly important to Baltimore. Beat the surging Cowboys, and then the Jaguars, and the Ravens' playoff ticket is stamped. Lose in Dallas, and things get a little cloudy.

So what do the Ravens need to do to disappoint the nostalgic Texas crowd?

First, the defense is going to have to be physical in the secondary, which was exploited last week when injuries left it short-handed. The Ravens' cornerbacks are undersized against Cowboys 6-foot-3, 220-pound wideouts Terrell Owens and Roy Williams, so matching their strength and aggressiveness at the line of scrimmage will be crucial.

I also wouldn't be surprised if Bart Scott or Terrell Owens lines up across from one of them to give them something to think about.

On offense, Joe Flacco must shake off his inaccuracy last week and connect on some of those long balls he tried against the Steelers. Many criticized the Ravens of being too run-oriented in that Pittsburgh loss, but the reality was that Flacco took chances downfield, but just didn't complete early. If he hits those Saturday, the Ravens would keep Dallas guessing throughout the entire game.

Those are just two keys for Baltimore, and be sure there are many others that will factor in. After all, the Cowboys are also vying for a playoff spot and need a victory.

In the end, it's just going to come down to who wants it more.

Ed. note: These aren't necessarily the beliefs of the Ravens organization.

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