PASSING GAME: The Ravens expect quarterback Joe Flacco to bounce back after he completed just 13-of-27 passing attempts and threw an interception in a 9-6 victory last Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Ravens have the eighth-best passing offense in the league, but their wide receivers have struggled against press coverage, which is what the Cowboys play. Tackles Michael Oher and Kelechi Osemele have looked vulnerable the past two weeks, and the Cowboys have two relentless outside pass rushers.
RUNNING GAME: Ray Rice has found his groove, rushing for 99 or more yards in three of his past four games. Rice is third among starting NFL running backs with an average of 5.2 yards per carry, and he's second in the NFL behind the Chiefs' Jamaal Charles with 609 yards from scrimmage. As a team, the Ravens are averaging 117.6 rushing yards per game, which is 13th in the NFL. The Ravens figure to run the ball a little more Sunday to slow the Cowboys' pass rush.
RUSH DEFENSE: Middle linebacker Ray Lewis has already warned that Dallas is going to see a different run defense than the one that the Chiefs' Charles gouged for 125 yards in the first half last Sunday. The unit did shut down Charles in the second half, but it ranks an uncharacteristic 20th in the NFL, allowing 118.4 rushing yards per game. The Ravens need to get more from Ma'ake Kemoeatu, Terrence Cody and Art Jones against the run, and the tackling has to be better.
PASS DEFENSE: The Ravens held the Chiefs to 125 passing yards and intercepted Matt Cassel twice, but they're going to need to do it against a better passing team to ease concern about this group. They are tied for 22nd in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game (261.4). While cornerback Cary Williams has mostly silenced his critics with interceptions in back-to-back games, the Ravens' pass rush has slowed considerably. They have one sack in their last two games and are tied for 19th in the NFL with nine sacks.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Rookie kicker Justin Tucker continues to impress, as he was 3-for-3 against the Chiefs and is now 11-for-12 on field goal attempts this season. The Ravens gave up 115 return yards against Kansas City, but their coverage teams had been pretty solid. Rookie kick returner Deonte Thompson lost a fumble and was called for a penalty last week. Punter Sam Koch is having another solid season.
INTANGIBLES: The Ravens have established one of the best home-field advantages in the NFL, winning 13 consecutive games at M&T Bank Stadium, the longest streak in the league. The Ravens are 30-5 under John Harbaugh at home, which includes an 8-0 record against NFC teams. On Sunday, they'll look to improve to 5-1 for the first time under Harbaugh and just the second time in team history.
PASSING GAME: Quarterback Tony Romo has a solid 66.9 completion percentage, and he's thrown for 1,148 yards. But those numbers are marred by his eight interceptions, five of them coming in his last game against the Chicago Bears. Wide receiver Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten have struggled with drops, and the offensive line has been shaky. Still, Dallas is fourth in the league with 296.3 passing yards per game. Miles Austin leads the Cowboys with 300 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
RUNNING GAME: There were high hopes for running back DeMarco Murray, but he hasn't gotten much going in limited opportunities (61 carries). Dallas is averaging just 67.8 rushing yards per game. Only three teams average fewer. Murray has rushed for 237 yards and a touchdown and is averaging 3.9 yards per carry. He rushed for 131 yards in the season opener against the New York Giants but hasn't hit the 50-yard mark in three games since.
RUSH DEFENSE: Middle linebacker Sean Lee is a tackling machine and is tied for seventh in the NFL with 47 tackles. His emergence has solidified the Cowboys' run defense, which has held the opposition to 108 yards per game on the ground, ranking 15th in the NFL. The only blip was Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks rushing for 122 yards against them in Week 2. The Cowboys have allowed only one rushing touchdown all season, and the return of nose tackle Jay Ratliff will only make this group stronger.
PASS DEFENSE: Focused on upgrading their porous pass defense from 2011, the Cowboys signed free agent Brandon Carr and drafted Morris Claiborne in the first round. The two cornerbacks have contributed to the NFL's top-ranked pass defense, holding opponents to 169.5 passing yards per game. Outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who has a team-high five sacks and is one of the most feared pass rushers in the league, wrecks opposing passing attacks. Anthony Spencer is no picnic on the other end.
SPECIAL TEAMS: There is some uncertainty with the Cowboys' kicking game, as both punters they have used this year — Brian Moorman and Chris Jones — are nursing injuries. Their absence would also affect place kicker Dan Bailey, who would have to get used to his third holder of the season. Dallas has gotten very little from its return game, ranking 25th in average yards per kickoff return (21.5) and 28th in average yards per punt return (6.0). The Cowboys' coverage units, however, have been among the league's best.
INTANGIBLES: The Cowboys should be plenty fresh coming off a bye, but the time off provided even more opportunity for people to dwell on the turnover-filled, blowout loss to the Bears. Dallas has dropped two straight following a bye, has never beaten the Ravens in three tries and is 33-39 all-time against the AFC North. The Cowboys are 1-1 on the road this season after going 3-5 away from home last year. They'll probably have to improve on their minus seven turnover ratio to win Sunday.
PREDICTION: With a ton of offensive talent, dangerous pass rushers and physical cornerbacks, the Cowboys have all the characteristics of a team that should give the Ravens a host of problems. But they also have a reputation for turning the ball over and committing penalties at the wrong time. They won't have that margin of error Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium. Like all but one of the Ravens' first five games, this one will probably go down to the final drive and my guess is it will be Flacco, not Romo, leading his team to the decisive points.
Ravens, 23-20Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun