ARLINGTON, TEXAS — The frustration radiated from every corner of the Ravens' locker room. Tight end Dennis Pitta shut down a question about whether the Ravens had made any offensive strides. His voice nearly gone, wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. said his 1,000th catch didn't mean a lot given the end result. Moments earlier, quarterback Joe Flacco said the Ravens should have beaten the Dallas Cowboys and made sure reporters knew he wasn't kidding.
It was safety Eric Weddle who stood up and spoke to his teammates following the game to try and impart some perspective.
"The message was clear. We're on the road against one of the best teams in the league and we're right there with them. We just didn't make the plays that you need to, to win the game," Weddle said. "Hopefully, we're a confident bunch coming out of here. If everyone gets a little better — look at yourself first, look why we lost, a couple of bad penalties [and] third down situations where we can clean up on defense. Offensively, just play a little bit better and we'll win those games. It's a 16-game season. We're first in our division. I believe this game will be a defining moment in our season."
All week, the Ravens carried themselves with a quiet confidence, believing they were just the team to slow down the Cowboys' offensive juggernaut. For the better part of the first half, they did. However, the Ravens and the NFL's top-ranked defense couldn't keep pace and they were run over in the second half in a 27-17 loss to the Cowboys in front of an announced 93,056 at AT&T Stadium.
Trailing 10-7 late in the second quarter, the Cowboys (9-1) bullied their way to a franchise-record ninth straight victory by scoring on their final five drives against a Ravens defense that had forced a punt on the first four. Dallas rookie quarterback Dak Prescott threw three touchdown passes and hooked up with Dez Bryant twice for scores in an 11-minute span of the second half.
"Yeah, we're frustrated," said Smith whose 5-yard touchdown reception with just over eight minutes to play had cut the Cowboys' lead to a touchdown. "That was a good team and we felt like we had them on the ropes and we let them off the hook. We didn't play as well as we wanted to collectively, and [we're] just a little disappointed in ourselves."
With the Pittsburgh Steelers beating the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, the Ravens (5-5) are now tied for first place in the AFC North with six games to go, starting next Sunday at home against the Cincinnati Bengals.
For much of the game against the Cowboys, the Ravens looked far closer to a team that is capable of capturing the division than they did in the season's first half. The Ravens didn't turn the ball over on offense and they gained 368 total yards despite possessing the ball for less than 10 total minutes in the second half. Flacco finished 23-of-35 for 269 yards, one touchdown pass and no interceptions.
Before wearing down late, the defense did a serviceable job on rookie phenom Ezekiel Elliott and held the Cowboys to 118 rushing yards, 43 below their average.
But largely because of key penalties — center Jeremy Zuttah was called for three, including a pivotal unnecessary roughness call in the third quarter — the Ravens weren't able to sustain enough drives, and the defense was powerless to get off the field.
With the Ravens selling out to stop Elliott and without their top cornerback, Jimmy Smith, on the field to match up with Bryant, Prescott dinked and dunked his way down the field throughout the second half. Prescott completed 14-of-15 passes in the second half for 146 yards and two scores. He was barely touched in the final 2 ½ quarters as the Ravens defense wore down and had no answers for the NFL's hottest offense.
With the game tied at 10 in the third quarter, the Cowboys marched 92 yards on 10 plays and scored on Prescott's 4-yard pass to Bryant. The drive ate nearly six minutes. When Dallas got the ball back, they marched 88 yards on 13 plays and scored on Prescott's 13-yard pass to Bryant, who dragged rookie cornerback Tavon Young into the end zone. That drive lasted just less than eight minutes.
The Ravens cut the deficit to seven when Flacco hit Smith for a touchdown, but the defense couldn't stop Dallas. The Cowboys finalized a 13-play, 72-yard drive that tokk six minutes, 26 seconds and ended on Dan Bailey's 26-yard field goal. That made it a 27-17 game.
"I think the thing to take from it is, if we play good, solid football and play winning football, eliminate the mistakes, we would have won the game, in my mind," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We're definitely good enough to win any game we play in the National Football League. Our eyes go to next week against Cincinnati at home. Six-game season and we need to take care of our business, and part of that's improving. We've got to improve. I think we've come a long way in a lot of ways. We're not there yet to beat this team in this situation because we made too many mistakes. That's on us. No moral victories, no. We expected to come in here and win the game."
Flacco, too, was uninterested in hearing any talk that the Ravens made progress Sunday. He believes the offense left points on the field and didn't do enough with the possessions it did get. He lamented a five-drive stretch spanning halftime where the Ravens managed just a 46-yard field goal that gave them a 10-7 lead late in the second quarter. The running game managed 86 yards in the first half, and Terrance West (Northwestern High, Towson University) scored on an 18-yard touchdown run. But forced to play catch up, the Ravens ran the ball only three times in the second half.
"We should beat this team. I am not kidding," Flacco said. "I felt very confident coming into this game, and I really feel we should beat this team. We should beat pretty much every team we play. In the couple that you lose, you hurt yourself and you lose them, and that's not what we're doing right now. We're obviously not as good as we would like to be. I came into this game, I think we all did, very confident, and that we were going to do something nice and come in here and not shock ourselves, but shock everybody else. It didn't happen."
Weddle, though, sees bigger and better things ahead.
"Everyone needs to understand that we're still going to come to work Monday, and you better have a great attitude that you want to get better and you want to work and not get down in the dumps just because we lost a game against one of the best teams in the league," he said. "That should never affect your performance for the week. We have a big division game coming up."