ARLINGTON, TEXAS — Whenever the Ravens play top teams in the NFL, their lack of playmakers or game-changers will show up and hurt them.
The Ravens went toe-to-toe with the hottest team in the league for a half Sunday, but in the end, the Dallas Cowboys had too many playmakers — Dez Bryant, Ezekiel Elliott and Jason Witten — to go along with a powerful offensive line.
The Ravens countered with receiver Steve Smith, age 37. That's not a knock on Smith who is an amazing story, but just a simple fact about the Ravens. Until they get more playmakers on offense and one in the secondary, they will continue to be on the verge of being a good team.
They might not get there soon.
After hiding in a corner during the Ravens' two-game winning streak, all the critics of Ravens coach John Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome will resurface in the next few days. But the Ravens have improved since the beginning of the season.
The coaching staff might have put together its best all-around game plan of the season against Dallas. The offense still struggled at times, but the Ravens ran the ball well. They ran waggles, bootlegs, unbalanced lines and reverses, they flooded zones with receivers and ran pick plays.
On defense, they confused rookie quarterback Dak Prescott in the first half with a lot of different looks before and after snaps. They used a heavy package to slow Elliott and ran twists and stunts in the front seven.
But there is only so much deception to be used in a game. Eventually, it will come down to playmakers. Dallas had too many and the Ravens had too few. From the midway point of the second quarter, Dallas scored on all five of its possessions including drives of 92, 88 and 72 yards.
What happened to the No. 1 ranked defense in the NFL?
"When the team runs the ball so well, it is hard to get to the quarterback," Ravens safety Eric Weddle said. " Play actions, boots — they executed well. Five straight scoring drives is impressive. They made the plays to win the game and we didn't."
That's because they have playmakers. The Ravens continue to hurt themselves with penalties; they committed 12 for 136 yards Sunday. Dallas had five for 45, and the Cowboys have the players to bail them out afterward.
When the Ravens are facing first-and-15 or first-and-20, they might as well punt. The Cowboys had a first-and-30 at their own 28-yard-line during the second quarter, and they went on to score a touchdown.
They just have too many weapons.
Witten had five catches for 37 yards and Cole Beasley had five for 59. Bryant finished with six receptions for 80 yards including two touchdowns.
The Ravens couldn't stop him. They were missing cornerback Jimmy Smith, and he certainly is better than Shareece Wright, but he isn't a match for Bryant, either. He isn't a shutdown cornerback.
And when the Ravens tried to stop Bryant from making big plays down the field by keeping their safeties back, the Cowboys worked underneath to Witten and Beasley. Or they just pounded the Ravens into submission with Elliott.
The Ravens don't have an Elliott on their roster, a runner who can beat you with power, speed or as a receiver out of the backfield. They don't have a Tom Brady at quarterback or an Antonio Gates at tight end. There is no Aqib Talib at cornerback. The Ravens play hard; they just don't have enough star power.
They came into the Dallas game with the best front seven in the NFL, and the Cowboys wore them down. It's no secret how to beat the Ravens: you go over the top with the passing game and challenge their cornerbacks to make plays. It's been that way for years now.
The team statistics in this game were fairly even. One major difference was that the Cowboys had nearly an 11-minute advantage in time of possession.
Here's another one: Dallas has several elite players and the Ravens have only one.
"They didn't make the mistakes we did and they made the plays down the stretch with both the run and pass game that we didn't," Harbaugh said. "So, that's what it boiled down to at the end."
And it will end that way against all good teams.