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Five Things We Learned from the Ravens’ 34-17 win over the Dallas Cowboys

The Ravens rediscovered their collective joy as they beat the overmatched Dallas Cowboys with brute power and inspired running from quarterback Lamar Jackson, who returned from his bout with COVID-19. Here are five things we learned Tuesday night:

Sometimes, you just need to play the right opponent.

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The Ravens had to win this week, not just to remain in sniffing distance of the AFC playoff race but to put their season back on firm ground after three straight losses and a disorienting, disheartening COVID-19 outbreak.

If the NFL gave them the power to invite any opponent for that purpose, they could not have made a better choice than the Cowboys. Dallas can’t stop the run and can’t convert in the red zone, the wrong deficiencies to carry into M&T Bank Stadium.

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The Ravens made mistakes — a fumbled snap, a 66-yard kickoff return allowed, a missed field goal by Justin Tucker, a sailed third-down throw by Lamar Jackson — that might have put them in hot water against a better opponent. But not against the Cowboys, who crumbled in the face of their power attack.

“Easy money!” left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. shouted after J.K. Dobbins plowed into the end zone for the last of the Ravens’ 294 rushing yards. A succinct summation.

The Ravens were still not a complete team Tuesday night. With no Mark Andrews and no Willie Snead IV, Jackson struggled to connect on third-down throws. With no Matthew Judon and a depleted secondary, the defense could not dominate.

But the Ravens played with an elemental power that has defined them in their best moments over the past three seasons. Their offensive linemen and fullback Patrick Ricard mauled Dallas defenders, leaving vast expanses of open ground for Dobbins and Gus Edwards, who combined for 172 yards on 18 carries. When brute force works that effectively, a modest passing game and a bend-not-break defense will do.

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A sense of relief seemed to sweep across the team. After a month of unrelenting stress, the Ravens got to play the way they had expected to all season.

“It was fun out there, man,” Edwards said. “I’m really proud of the offense. I’m proud of the O-line; they were able to get us going and get the backs started.”

The Ravens did what they were supposed to do against a faltering opponent, and given the events of the past month, that felt plenty good.

“It’s a win that we really, really had to have,” coach John Harbaugh said.

After a week away, Lamar Jackson was the best player on the field and the most joyous.

At times, this felt like a high school game, with the best athlete on the field, Jackson, doing what he pleased.

In the third quarter, he improvised a pair of first-down gains with his scrambling magic, then rolled away from pressure and tapped his ESP connection with Marquise Brown for a beautiful touchdown in the corner of the end zone.

Jackson seemed to suffer no lingering effects from the 10 days he spent on the reserve/COVID-19 list. He ran with scalpel precision we have not always seen this season against defenses designed to clog his exit lanes. He scored the Ravens’ first touchdown on the inverted veer play that has produced his longest runs of 2020, but he was just as effective when his carries weren’t designed. He did not throw as well, missing Miles Boykin high on a third-down attempt and low on a potential touchdown in the back of the end zone. But he was more than good enough to give his team a working cushion throughout the second half.

“It turned out that he had a lot tonight,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t know that you could predict that.”

Jackson, who said he’d yet to regain his senses of smell or taste, played with palpable joy. He’d agonized over the timing of his COVID-19 diagnosis, which kept him away from the team’s crucial matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers. So he hit the field Tuesday with the enthusiasm of a teenager returning from summer break.

“It felt like I hadn’t played for a whole season,” he said afterward, grinning from behind his protective mask.

The Ravens’ pass rush has gone quiet, an alarming trend as they prepare to play the Cleveland Browns.

In theory, the Ravens took the field with far more defensive firepower than they had the previous week against the Pittsburgh Steelers. In practice, they hardly got near Andy Dalton for most of the game, despite rushing against one of the NFL’s most injury-ravaged offensive lines.

With few defenders crashing his pocket, Dalton completed 31 passes — almost all of them underneath — against an undermanned secondary that was missing cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Tramon Williams.

“They were doing a good job of getting the ball off quick,” said defensive end Derek Wolfe, who played another excellent game with a team-high nine tackles.

As Harbaugh said, the Ravens stopped the Cowboys when they needed to, most notably on a tip by nose tackle Brandon Williams that ended up in the sticky hands of rookie middle linebacker Patrick Queen, who played one of his best all-around games. They also benefited from three missed field-goal attempts by Dallas kicker Greg Zuerlein.

But they can’t be thrilled with surrendering 29 first downs to an offense that had averaged 14.7 points per game since losing starting quarterback Dak Prescott.

The Ravens rolled up six sacks in a Week 6 win over the Philadelphia Eagles. Since then, they’ve totaled six in six games. Sacks aren’t everything, but that’s a startling lack of production for a defense that added pass-rush specialist Yannick Ngakoue in a ballyhooed midseason trade.

It’s also a troubling trend going into a crucial matchup with the Browns, who will attack with the same play-action formula that bedeviled the Ravens in losses to the New England Patriots and Tennessee Titans.

Dez Bryant’s positive test reminded us that there is no getting away from COVID-19 this season.

Just when the Ravens thought they had waked from their COVID-19 nightmare, another bizarre twist arrived in the form of a game day positive for Bryant, who was scratched less than an hour before kickoff. Suddenly, familiar questions arose. Why was Bryant warming up? Would any close contacts be scratched along with him? Was it safe to play at all?

“The timing of this thing is crazy kind of a deal,” said Harbaugh, who was not allowed to replace Bryant in his allotment of active players.

As for the risks of playing, Harbaugh, who has probably learned more than he ever wanted to about league protocols over the last two weeks, said: “You’ve got to trust the science on it, the way they go about doing it.”

The timing was gutting for Bryant, who’d worked for more than two years to get back on an NFL field and grinned so broadly when he signed to the Ravens’ 53-man roster. He was moments from playing against the team for which he’d caught 73 touchdown passes only to have his comeback halted by an unseen enemy. In the moments after he learned of his positive test, Bryant wrote on Twitter that he was “going to call it a quit for the rest of the season.” His exasperation was understandable.

From a pure game-planning standpoint, the Ravens didn’t miss Bryant terribly. He showed promise as a short-yardage target in a Week 11 loss to the Titans but had yet to see many opportunities in the red zone, where he made his bones in his Dallas heyday.

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Bryant did, however, bring a blend of wisdom and verve to a wide receiver room that needed a jolt. His story provided uplift in a season full of disappointments.

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Teammates could only shake their heads and move forward, even as they felt for him.

“That’s the year that we’re dealing with, right?” Wolfe said. “You just have to handle the series of events.”

The Ravens are now set for their game of the year.

If we operate on the assumption that the Ravens can’t afford another loss, their Monday trip to Cleveland looms as the single greatest impediment to their ambitions for a third straight postseason appearance. They obliterated the Browns, 38-6, in Week 1, with Jackson picking up where he’d left off in his 2019 Most Valuable Player run and the defense harassing Baker Mayfield into a dreadful performance. If you had said then that the Browns would stand 9-3 and the Ravens 7-5 for their Dec. 14 rematch, sane people would have laughed at you.

But the Browns have slowly transformed under first-year coach Kevin Stefanski. They were always a dangerous running team with the two-headed monster of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Now, they’re playing to Mayfield’s strengths (they rank third in the league in play-action passing yards) and limiting his room to make bad decisions (seven interceptions in his first seven games, zero since). The 2018 No. 1 overall pick played his best game of the season Sunday as Cleveland built a 38-7 lead in a signature win over the Titans.

The Browns are riding a four-game winning streak and would love to blow a hole in the Ravens’ playoff chances after eating so many losses to their AFC North superior over the years.

Coaches like to repeat the old Bill Parcells nugget that you are what your record says you are, but that might not be entirely true of Cleveland. The Browns have beaten just two opponents with winning records, and thanks to blowout losses to the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, have actually been outscored this season. Analytic measures such as Football Outsiders’ DVOA portray them as mediocre rather than monstrous.

So we’re staring at a genuinely fascinating matchup. Are the Browns for real? Can the Ravens uncover the effortless confidence they carried into that Week 1 thrashing?

If they win in Cleveland, 11-5 will start to feel like a strong possibility more than a hope. Only the improving New York Giants, scheduled to come to Baltimore two days after Christmas, would remain as a major threat. If the Ravens lose to the Browns, however, they’ll be left with fading hopes that the AFC contenders above them might collapse.

“We’ve got to beat Cleveland,” Wolfe said. “That’s all that really matters. I’m not worried about anything else, other than beating the next team.”

RAVENS@BROWNS

Monday, 8:15 p.m.

TV: ESPN Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Ravens by 1

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