The Ravens' defensive players spent the week praising the Dallas Cowboys, talking about the great challenge that faces them Sunday and deflecting the attention away from their own lofty defensive ranking. The football populace was focused on quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott and the rest of "America's Team." And the Ravens were, too.
If outside forecasts of the defense's pending demise had seeped into their locker room, the Ravens weren't saying. The knowing nods and wry smiles, though, suggested the players were well aware of what was being said and written.
They haven't played anyone. They are too slow, too reliant on veterans. They don't stand a chance of stopping the Cowboys and their vaunted running game.
"If we don't like it, we know what we have to do on Sunday," Ravens middle linebacker C.J. Mosley said of the chatter. "That's all that matters. Once we get on the field, all the talking and all that other stuff goes out the window."
When the league-best Cowboys (8-1) and the AFC North-leading Ravens (5-4) meet Sunday afternoon at AT&T Stadium, the game's biggest subplot is the league's hottest offense and best running game facing the NFL's top-ranked defense.
Led by the first-year duo of Prescott and Elliott, the Cowboys have tied a franchise record with eight straight wins, and their physical, high-powered offense is drawing comparisons to offenses once directed by Troy Aikman that featured Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin.
The Ravens are in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt largely because of a defense that is at or near the top of the NFL in most categories. The comparisons between the franchise's great defenses of yesteryear haven't yet materialized. There are those who still wonder how good the Ravens defense truly is, and that's just fine with coach John Harbaugh.
"It's what, nine games in? We've stopped the run, but what are we going to [do,] slip up now and not be able to stop the run?" Harbaugh said. "You have to play every game the next week like it's the most important game of the season. Our guys understand that. Our guys are going to get ready to play, just take them one at a time, and play well from one week to the next."
By just about every statistical measure, Dean Pees' defense is one of the league's best. But before they're anointed as such, pundits want to see how they hold up against the Cowboys, who average 28.7 points and 412.7 yards per game. The Ravens, meanwhile, are giving up 17.8 points and 281.6 yards per contest, but have done it against a schedule that has included only two top-10 offenses: the Oakland Raiders and Washington Redskins.
"All I can tell you is they are moving up in class Sunday," said Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts, who is part of the NFL on CBS broadcasting team for the game. "This Dallas offensive line is the best in the league and on its way to being considered one of the best of all time. You just look at what Dallas has been able to do, it's the perfect combination.
"If you look at it the other way, it's the worst combination you can face. You've got a power running attack and a play-action passing game with a mobile quarterback, an outstanding receiver in Dez Bryant and a Hall of Fame tight end in Jason Witten. There's no weakness across the board."
Former New England Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest, now an NFL Network analyst, pointed to Week 6 when the Green Bay Packers had the NFL's top-ranked rushing defense. The Cowboys shredded them for 191 rushing yards and 424 yards of total offense in a 30-16 victory at Lambeau Field.
"This is a great test for Baltimore to see if all these [rankings] match up against a really good run team," McGinest said. "I look at numbers, but I look at guys in jerseys more than I do numbers, and the matchups. Dallas, man, they've got some big hogs up front and they're intimidating to a lot of teams. This is a north-south power-style running game, and you have to meet it with force."
With Brandon Williams, Timmy Jernigan and Lawrence Guy manning the middle, and Terrell Suggs setting the edge, the Ravens have continued their tradition of having a dominant run defense. They've finished in the top 10 in the NFL in that category in 10 of the past 13 seasons. This year, take away Cleveland Browns running back Isaiah Crowell's 85-yard touchdown run against them in Week 2, and the Ravens are allowing just 2.9 yards per carry.
Elliott, however, presents an even bigger challenge, and he's hardly the Cowboys' only offensive weapon. Prescott has accounted for 18 touchdowns, including four with his legs. Bryant is one of the game's most dynamic and physical receivers. Witten has over 1,000 career receptions.
"They're the No. 1 rushing offense and we're the No. 1 run defense," Williams said. "It seems like eventually the best are going to play. So why not let it be now? Somebody's going to come out on top."
Williams and other Ravens don't seem to care much that the Ravens' top-ranked defense isn't getting the buzz that the defenses of the Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos or even the Philadelphia Eagles are getting.
Former NFL quarterback and current Bleacher Report and CBS analyst Chris Simms even wrote on Twitter last month that the Ravens have the slowest defense in the league and "it's not even close."
Other analysts point out that the Ravens padded their defensive stats against below-average to bad offensive teams like the Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars and Buffalo Bills. They mostly dismissed the Ravens' performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers because quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was playing hurt, and the Ravens always play tough against the Steelers. And then there is the reality that many of the top defensive players, a group headlined by Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and safety Eric Weddle, are getting up there in age.
"We don't listen to that kind of commentary, we just watch the tape," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "They're a very impressive group. It's easy to see why they're among the best defenses in the league."
What cannot be disputed is that the Ravens defense is much improved. Rookies Michael Pierce, Matthew Judon and Tavon Young have provided a much-needed infusion of youth. With Young and weak-side linebacker Zachary Orr in starting roles, and Mosley healthy again, the Ravens are quicker on defense and Pees cites that as the biggest reason the team has already forced 17 turnovers after getting 14 all of last year.
The healthy return of Suggs and the addition of Weddle have resulted in better communication and a more organized defense, which in turn, has led to fewer big plays allowed. Pees has taken advantage of the unit's increased versatility by showing many different looks on third down, where the Ravens have been the stingiest group in the league.
Still, as the players were reminded all week, they have yet to run into an offense quite like the Cowboys' this season.
"Every game for us is a statement game and we're looking at it as just another opponent that's in our way, that's trying to prevent us from reaching our goals," Orr said. "It's not about them. It's about us and how we play, how we can improve week in and week out. They've got the best record in the league right now. I guess on paper, it's the biggest challenge. We have to be ready to accept that and that's where we are. We're looking forward to it. We'll be ready to go."