We say it every week, but this time it's legit: this is the biggest game of the year. The Cowboys host the Ravens tonight and the postseason is on the line. The Steelers-Titans and Panthers-Giants get-togethers will determine playoff seeding, but whatever happens, all four teams will be playing in January.
There's a very real chance that the loser of tonight's Baltimore-Dallas affair will be on the couch with the rest of us in two weeks.
The Ravens are coming off a tough loss to the Steelers that wasn't without controversy. Still, at 9-5, rookie head coach John Harbaugh has done more with this outfit than anybody expected, and the other rookie, quarterback Joe Flacco, has been everything the too-numerous-to-count "franchise QBs" of the past decade (courtesy of Brian Billick!) weren't. And, of course, there's the defense, which, as always, is dominant.
The Cowboys managed to weather a month of Brad and Brooks, and now that Tony Romo is healthy, they've reassumed the role of NFC playoff contender. There's the ongoing Terrell Owens sideshow, but I'm convinced that that's more a media creation than a divisive locker room issue. That said, it's probably in everybody's best interest if Romo only throws T.O. the ball from now on.
Three Key Questions
1) Can the Cowboys' offensive line handle the Ravens "it's coming from everywhere" pressure?
2) How will the Ravens neutralize DeMarcus Ware and his 19 sacks?
3) How will Dallas account for Ed Reed?
Player in the Spotlight: Tony Romo. The Ravens have been very cautious with Flacco, and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has used the running game to set up safe play-action pass plays. And often, it comes with Flacco enjoying max-protection from his pass blockers. Romo, on the other hand, will be given free reign to wing the ball all over the field, which means that he's much more likely to lose a fumble or throw an interception. The o-line's ability to keep him upright, along with T.O.'s, Roy Williams' and Jason Witten's ability to get open quickly, will go a long way in determining the outcome.
Baltimore's Path to Triumph: Continue to do what they've done for the previous 15 weeks: run the ball effectively and play tenacious defense. It's a pretty simple formula, really, and one that has served them well thus far.
Dallas' Path to Triumph: Avoid turnovers, particularly those that put the ball in Ed Reed's hands. Because chances are, he's scoring. The Cowboys will also need to adjust to all-out blitzes and find ways to get the ball into the hands of playmakers roughly 1.5 seconds after the ball is snapped.
Prediction: Cowboys 13, Ravens 12.