Ravens looking to spoil Cowboys' party

IRVING, Texas -- The wrecking ball isn't scheduled to demolish Texas Stadium until long after the NFL season is concluded, and there's a big party kicking off tonight to celebrate the rich tradition of a venerable stadium that's being replaced by a younger, sleeker model.

The hype and pageantry is expected to include the return of Dallas Cowboys luminaries like Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Bob Lilly and Randy White.

And the Baltimore Ravens (9-5) would like nothing more than to ruin the party by upsetting the Cowboys (9-5) in a game holding major playoff implications for both teams.

Forget the famous hole in the roof for America's Team. The Ravens want to knock down the foundation.

"That's exactly what we're going to try to do is make it the last game in Dallas," rookie quarterback Joe Flacco said. "As long as we do that, we'll be happy."

If the Ravens win their final two regular-season games against Dallas and at home next week against the Jacksonville Jaguars, they will make the playoffs as a wild-card entry with the sixth and final AFC postseason berth.

If they lose this game amidst the pomp and circumstance of the final scheduled game at Texas Stadium unless the Cowboys host the NFC championship, then they lose a grip on their playoff destiny.

No scenario exists where the Ravens can clinch a playoff spot this weekend, but Baltimore could relinquish its hold on the sixth spot in the AFC with a loss combined by any two of the three AFC East challengers, the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins or New England Patriots, winning their Sunday games.

The Ravens will need their trademark focus tonight as well as a strong game plan to contain Cowboys standouts like quarterback Tony Romo, wide receiver Terrell Owens, tight end Jason Witten and outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware.

"It's not going to affect how we play or our emotions," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of the extra attention being paid to this nationally-televised contest. "We know what we've got at stake for our team. We're not too concerned about their history or tradition. We respect it and it's neat for them. I think it will affect their team more than us."

The Ravens, who are the only present NFL team that has never played at Texas Stadium and have won both of their prior meetings with Dallas, will be battling history as well as the Cowboys.

Since the end of the 1996 season, teams have gone 11-2 in the final regular-season games before closing their old stadiums. And the margin of victory has usually approached 20 points in those lopsided games.

"We're not getting caught up in all of this thing that Dallas wants to do because they're closing the stadium," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "That don't have anything to do with us. We're the Ravens. They're the Cowboys. "Let them take care of that. Our job is to go win a 60-minute ball-game and set up the game against Jacksonville, come home and try to get in the dance."

The Ravens understand that it will be an emotional night for the Cowboys, who are planning to count down the five most memorable moments at the stadium from 1971 to this year and will trot out close to 100 former players and coaches for a post-game ceremony.

According to Dallas team officials, that will include a final walk across the famous star on the 50-yard line.

The Ravens' concentration, though, needs to be on their matchups and not on the Cowboys' impressive history.

"It's going to be a circus atmosphere, bringing everybody back, but we have to focus on the 11 guys that we are going to try to defend," said defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, whose father, Buddy Ryan, had some memorable clashes with the Cowboys, including the so-called Bounty Bowl when he was the Philadelphia Eagles' coach. "Our focus is we have to win this game to go to the playoffs. It doesn't matter if [Ed] "Too Tall" Jones is out there."

The Cowboys sport an all-time record of 212-99 at Texas Stadium, including a 6-1 mark this year. Plus, Dallas needs to win to keep pace in the NFC wild-card race.

Meanwhile, the Ravens are 4-3 on the road this season. In their past five road games, they have averaged 29.8 points and gone 4-1.

Every possible bit of motivation exists for the Ravens, who are coming off a stinging 13-9 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Win and they're in the driver's seat to make the playoffs after last year's 5-11 disaster that cost former coach Brian Billick his job and brought Harbaugh to town to get the franchise back on track. Lose, and they could find themselves on the outside looking in when the postseason tournament launches.

"You want to be able to have your football destinies in your hands, but I would have liked to have taken care of this problem last week or a couple of weeks ago," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "As we, sit we're in a two-game playoff right now. We win two, we're in. If we don't, then we have a big problem."

NOTES: Free safety Ed Reed (hamstring), cornerbacks Fabian Washington (hamstring) and Samari Rolle (hamstring) and running back Ray Rice (calf contusion) are questionable. ... Offensive tackles Willie Anderson (ankle), Adam Terry (knee) and Jared Gaither (illness, shoulder), punter Sam Koch (back), Mason (dislocated left shoulder), kicker Matt Stover (ankle) and linebacker Terrell Suggs (thigh) are probable. ... The Cowboys ruled out linebacker Bobby Carpenter (knee/calf) and offensive guard Montrae Holland (ankle), listing cornerback Alan Ball (ankle) as doubtful. ... Running back Marion Barber (toe) is questionable,20and Romo (back), cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones (neck), Witten (ankle) and wide receiver Roy Williams (foot) are probable.

Aaron Wilson cover the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

Baltimore Ravens' scouting report

NICKEL PACKAGE

1. Will the Baltimore Ravens be able to contain the Dallas Cowboys' high-octane passing game? As the Ravens (9-5) take on the Cowboys (9-5) today in a pivotal game at Texas Stadium with major playoff implicatio ns, an injury-riddled secondary will be severely tested by star quarterback Tony Romo and a stellar receiving corps headlined by wide receiver Terrell Owens and tight end Jason Witten. Romo has piled up 3,013 passing yards with 24 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and tends to excel at home.

He completed 20 of 30 passes for 244 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers in a win last week over the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants. Witten leads the team with 69 catches, and Owens has caught nine touchdown passes. Even third wide receiver Patrick Crayton has gotten into the act with four touchdowns. Although cornerback Fabian Washington's hamstring injury makes him a question mark, the Ravens lead the NFL with 22 interceptions and rank second in total defense (257.5 yards per game) and passing defense (179.5 yards per game). Free safety Ed Reed leads Baltimore with five interceptions, but is still dealing with a hamstring injury as well as a nerve impingement in his neck. If Washington is sidelined, then Frank Walker will start in his place. With the Cowboys' ability to strike deep, it's imperative that linebacker Terrell Suggs and defensive end Trevor Pryce generate some pressure on Romo to keep Dallas offensive coordinator Jason Garrett honest.

2. How will the Ravens' offensive line fare against the Cowboys' front seven?

The Cowboys' defense features the most devastating pass rush in the NFL with a league-high 53 sacks, reminiscent of the old Doomsday defense. Pro Bowl outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware leads the league with 19 sacks and had three sacks and two forced fumbles last week. Plus, he has plenty of quality assistance from Pro Bowl nose guard Jay Ratliff, veteran defensive end Greg Ellis, who has four sacks in the past four games, and inside linebacker Bradie James. The Ravens will likely need to keep extra blockers in to protect rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, who has only been sacked 25 times. The Cowboys sacked Giants quarterback Eli Manning eight times last week and have had at least four sacks in eight games, including five of the past six. They have had at least five sacks in the past three games and at least seven sacks in two of the past three games. Expect the Ravens to use all three offensive tackles (Willie Anderson, Jared Gaither and Adam Terry) in an unbalanced line to counteract the Cowboys' strength upfront.

3. Will Flacco continue his mastery of road opponents?

Flacco is the fourth-ranked road quarterback in the NFL with a 91.1 passer rating. He has completed 64.1 percent of his throws away from M&T Bank Stadium for 1,542 yards, nine touchdowns and five interceptions. Although Flacco has slumped the past few weeks, including a season-worst 22.2 passer rating last week, he has traditionally excelled on the road.

4. Will fullback Le'Ron McClain run roughshod over the Cowboys?

McClain has rushed for a career-high and team-high 693 rushing yards, using his brutish running style to lead Baltimore with seven touchdown runs. He has eclipsed former starter Willis McGahee as the centerpiece of a physical running game. The Cowboys have a stout front four backed by middle linebacker Zach Thomas. The Cowboys rank seventh in total defense and are tied for seventh in rushing defense with an average of 93.1 yards on the ground surrendered per game.

5. Can the Ravens' red-zone offense rebound from last week's struggles?

The Ravens went 0-for-3 in the red zone in a 13-9 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers last week. They need to show confidence in McClain's ability to bash his way into the end zone or allow Flacco to throw some fade passes to tight end Todd Heap. Otherwise, they could be relegated to another exhibition of Matt Stover's kicking prowess.

INSIDE SLANT: KEY MATCHUPS

Ravens FS Ed Reed vs. Cowboys QB Tony Romo The Ravens have intercepted seven passes over the past month and allowed just two touchdown passes during that span. Reed has intercepted five passes this season and returned two for touchdowns and a fumble for another score. The Ravens are 25-8 when he intercepts a pass and 6-0 when he intercepts two passes. His instincts, hands and range are unparalleled at the safety position. With cornerback Fabia n Washington ailing because of a sore hamstring, Reed will need to provide assistance over the top as a center fielder. Romo has an array of dangerous weapons to throw to in receivers Terrell Owens, Roy Williams and Patrick Crayton as well as tight end Jason Witten. In six home games at Texas Stadium, Romo has averaged 284 passing yards with 17 touchdowns and just four interceptions. In the Ravens' past two road games, they have only intercepted a total of two passes.

Ravens QB Joe Flacco vs. Cowboys OLB DeMarcus Ware

Flacco could find himself under extreme duress against Ware, a Pro Bowl pass rusher who leads the NFL with 19 sacks. He needs just 3 1/2 more to tie the sack record established by Michael Strahan. Ware registered three sacks last week against Eli Manning. Ware's blend of size, strength, speed and moves has confounded opposing offensive tackles and flustered quarterbacks for the past few seasons. Flacco has only been sacked 25 times this year, and the offensive line did a solid job of containing Pittsburgh Steelers star outside linebacker James Harrison. However, the Cowboys sacked Manning eight times last week and have 13 sacks in the past two games. The Giants have a strong offensive line and had surrendered just 15 sacks heading into last week. Flacco will need a quick release and sound awareness to get rid of the football on time, and his offensive line needs to get the job done upfront and wall off Ware and company that includes Greg Ellis and Jay Ratliff.

THREE DOWNS WITH ...

Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis 1. On playing in final regular-season game at Texas Stadium: "I was just talking to someone about that. Yeah, I've never played in Texas Stadium. Of course, the tradition and history behind it speaks for itself. More importantly, just going in and getting a win is bigger than that. Playing down there is one thing. I'd just call it another arena, but it is a great place of tradition. I look forward to it."

2. On Terrell Suggs' progression: "I think maturity. He's always going to be a kid at heart. That's just who he is, that's the way he plays the game. But Suggs approaches the game now totally different. It's amazing the questions from Day One that he was asking were something totally different from what he's asking right now.

"We sit right beside each other in the team meeting room, and the things that he inquires about now are freakin' amazing. And you can see h is growth. He doesn't want to be labeled just as a defensive end. He wants to be labeled as a complete football player, and to me, he's probably one of the most dominant players in this game."

3. On trying to make the playoffs: "Right now, we control our own destiny of getting into the playoffs, that's the bottom line. We're not waiting on anybody to lose. People are behind us now, and the thing that I've been telling guys, we're not getting caught up in all of this thing that Dallas wants to do because they're closing the stadium.

"That don't have anything to do with us. We're the Ravens, they're the Cowboys. Let them take care of that. Our job is to go win a 60-minute ball game and set up the game against Jacksonville, come home and try to get in the dance."

THREE DOWNS WITH ...

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo

1. On the drama surrounding Terrell Owens and their relationship: "It's good. It hasn't changed any from four weeks ago, to last week, to this week. It's all the same. Just different people like to talk about different stuff. It's not as if it's new. I think that for whatever reason, it's a story. If I was following sports, I'd be like, ‘enough already' sometimes when they talk about us.

"Things that really wouldn't be a story in other places, they20make them out to be here. Like meeting with your coaches, that happens everywhere and that happens probably every week around here. But, all of a sudden, this was a big story this time. You just learn to live with it and you let it roll off your back and move right along."

2. On whether distractions affect the Cowboys' play: "No. I think that's the biggest misconception to, I don't want to say the fans, but definitely to people who judge football games and decide who's going to win before the game. They're looking to say, ‘There's too much turmoil here.' When you get on the field, it's just about being a guy.

"Who knows what are the things that decide football games? It's not, ‘Oh, he's mad at him,' or ‘He's talking about him.' You don't even think about that stuff when you're=2 0on the field. You've got so much stuff going on you've got to think about coverages and all this other stuff."

3. On throwing popcorn in Owens' face during the introduction before last week's game: "Right before the show we did that. No, I'm just kidding. No, we did that in the offseason. We did a little thing for NBC. We were just goofing around and I said, ‘Let's try one more take.' And that was the take that I did that on."

Aaron Wilson cover the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.


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