'Boys' man

The Baltimore Sun

Forget the drama surrounding the Dallas Cowboys' Terrell Owens, the wide receiver who spurned the Ravens in 2004 in favor of the Philadelphia Eagles.

The biggest potential headache for the Ravens' defense is not T.O., but T.R.

Tony Romo is ranked among the top 10 quarterbacks in the NFL in several passing categories, and he orchestrates a Dallas pass offense ranked eighth in the league.

"He can do some amazing things with the football," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who saw enough of Romo when Harbaugh coached the Eagles' secondary last season. "He's got an incredibly quick release, he's got a tremendously quick release on the run, and he's got tremendous vision. He can find a receiver when you don't think he's even looking at him. Sometimes, I think he's got eyes in the side of his head, and he finds a way to get guys the ball."

If the Cowboys harbor any hope of securing one of the two NFC wild-card spots for the playoffs, they will need a healthy and productive Romo.

Under Romo, Dallas is 8-3 this season. But when Romo sat out three straight games with a broken pinkie on his right, throwing hand, the team lost two of three.

Wade Phillips, whose tenure as head coach might be limited by the presence of offensive coordinator and head-coach-in-waiting Jason Garrett, might need a Romo-directed run to the playoffs to keep his job.

"I think he's one of the top quarterbacks in the league," Phillips said. "I mean, he's done it all, and he's won a lot of games here in the last two years that I've been with him."

Despite missing games in weeks 7 through 9, Romo ranks second in the NFL in passer rating (98.3) and is tied for fourth in passing touchdowns (24) and 300-yard games (six).

He has succeeded because he's distributing the football to a number of teammates. Owens is tied for fourth in the NFL with nine touchdowns, Jason Witten ranks second and third, respectively, among tight ends in yards (815) and receptions (69). Marion Barber is sixth among running backs with 49 catches, and tight end Martellus Bennett became the third rookie in team history to catch a touchdown pass in three straight games.

Romo has been especially prolific at Texas Stadium, which will be replaced by the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium for the 2009 season. In six games at home this season, of which the Cowboys won five, Romo has completed 63.1 percent of his passes (128 of 203), averaged 284 yards and thrown 17 touchdown passes against just four interceptions.

On the road, Romo's completion percentage is slightly better at 63.2 percent, but his average yardage drops to 187, his touchdowns fall to seven and his interceptions balloon to seven.

Romo did his best to downplay the numbers, saying: "I think it's a coincidence. Last year, I had a better record on the road and had better stats on the road. I think it's just dependent on the team you play and what are you playing. If you play good that day, you play good that day. If you don't, you don't. It just kind of happens that I've probably played better at home this year, whereas last year, it was on the road. Each year is its own different element."

The Ravens will try to suffocate Romo with an aggressive, unpredictable pass rush that ranks 10th in the NFL with 31 sacks. But Romo has become proficient at avoiding sacks. Romo, who has been sacked just 15 times, scrambles out of the pocket and buys time for his receivers downfield.

"I think the thing you can't do is let him sit there and be comfortable," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said. "Dallas, of course, has a lot of weapons. You're worried about T.O., Barber or Witten. He has a lot of playmakers on his side of the ball. So to let him sit back there and pick and choose, I think that's where he's most successful, and people that have had success against him have made him not sit back there and be comfortable."

The Ravens' pass defense has its own credentials. The unit ranks second in the NFL in pass defense (179.5 yards a game) and is tied for first with the Cleveland Browns in interceptions (22) and fifth in fewest passing touchdowns allowed (14).

The defense could be reinforced by the return of cornerback Fabian Washington, who pulled his hamstring in Sunday's 13-9 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Although Washington did not practice yesterday, he said he anticipates suiting up against Dallas.

"Right now, it's been improving day-to-day," Washington said of his hamstring, which he initially labeled "medium sore." "We play on Saturday. I wish we played on Sunday to get that extra day, but I think my chances are very high that I am going to play."

Romo is also on the mend after suffering a bruised lower back in Sunday night's 20-8 win over the New York Giants. Romo said the back would have little impact on his availability for Saturday night's game, but Ravens players said they plan to test that resolve.

"Right now, he's a little banged up, so we've got to try to get to him and hit him a little bit, and we'll see how that goes," defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. "If it affects him, then we'll keep trying to go after him."

RAVENS (9-5) @COWBOYS (9-5)

Saturday, 8:15 p.m.

TV: Ch. 11, NFL

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Cowboys by 4

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