The Ravens are trying to prove they belong.
Two straight wins have moved them to the top of a bad division, but a road victory over Dallas would propel them into the conversation of compelling teams in the AFC. Baltimore’s No. 1 run defense is also trying to impose its will against the Cowboys’ top-ranked rushing attack in the marquee matchup of the game.
Meanwhile, the surprising Cowboys own the NFL’s best record at 8-1 and are coming off an emotional road win over Pittsburgh. That victory coupled with a big Thanksgiving meeting with NFC East rival Washington would appear to leave Dallas in danger of an emotional letdown against a 5-4 team on Sunday.
It’s time to go on the record as Baltimore tries to remain perfect in the all-time regular-season series against the Cowboys. The Ravens are 4-0 against Dallas, but only one of those was on the road, a 33-24 victory that closed old Texas Stadium on Dec. 20, 2008.
Below are five predictions for Sunday afternoon:
1. Steve Smith will catch a touchdown on the day he reaches 1,000 career receptions. The 37-year-old needs only three catches to reach that special mark and tie Hines Ward for 13th on the all-time list, but Smith will be determined to put on a show in a game in which most are expecting Dallas to win. The Cowboys secondary is without cornerback Morris Claiborne and will play plenty of Cover 2 to account for the speed of Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman, which will leave room for Smith to work the middle of the field. Joe Flacco has so much trust in Smith in a big game and will look his way early.
2. Dez Bryant will exploit a vulnerable Ravens secondary for a 100-yard receiving day. Even if Jimmy Smith plays after being listed as doubtful with a back issue, you can’t like his chances against the talented 6-foot-2 receiver. His expected absence is a big loss because the Ravens don’t have anyone else who matches up well against Bryant and it’s dangerous to take a defender out of the box against the Cowboys running game. Don’t be surprised if defensive coordinator Dean Pees uses Anthony Levine extensively as a dime back to defend the pass and provide help against the run.
3. Kenneth Dixon will receive more touches than starter Terrance West. The rookie had a career-high 80 total yards against Cleveland and matched his career high with 11 touches. Meanwhile, West averaged 3.1 yards per carry in Week 10 and has totaled just 96 rushing yards over the last three games. With the Cowboys ranking third in the NFL in run defense, the Ravens aren’t likely to open many rushing lanes and should utilize Dixon as a receiver out of the backfield. Philadelphia successfully unleashed the shifty Darren Sproles against Dallas in Week 8, which could be a blueprint for Dixon.
4. Ezekiel Elliott will have more rushing yards in the final quarter than the first three combined. The fourth pick of the 2016 draft and the Cowboys offensive line are special talents, but the Baltimore run defense has been just as impressive and will turn some heads. The Ravens will do all they can to take away the run and make rookie Dak Prescott beat them, but their own struggling offense as well as the absence of Jimmy Smith will leave too small of a margin for error on the afternoon. That will lead to some fatigue, which will allow Elliott to find some space for meaningful yardage late in the game.
5. The offense will once again be the Ravens’ primary downfall in a close 23-16 loss. Everyone has talked about the Ravens defense going up against the Cowboys offense, but the real key will be whether the Baltimore offense can do enough to keep up in this one. The Ravens scored a season-high 28 points against the worst team in the NFL last week, but that also included an ugly first half consisting of just two field goals. Optimists are talking about the second half of that one being the breakthrough for Flacco and the Ravens offense, but left guard Alex Lewis is out and right guard Marshal Yanda is far from 100 percent on an offensive line that has been the Achilles heel all year. Dallas lacks a strong pass rush and doesn’t have a great defense, but worse units have been able to shut down the Ravens this season. The defense will keep it close, but one good half against the lowly Browns isn’t enough to convince me that this offense is ready to do what it takes to beat a team like Dallas on the road.