Reality Check: Dallas can be beat by ’Hawks if not Ravens

Alan TruexLLANO, Texas – Looking back on six decades as a Dallas Cowboys fan, it seems to me they’ve had as much glory as any pro football franchise, and thus I was surprised to learn that until now they’ve never won nine consecutive games.

So Jason Garrett is doing what Tom Landry couldn’t do?

So a rookie quarterback, Dak Prescott, is doing what Roger Staubach couldn’t do?

So Sean Lee, Brandon Carr and Co. are more successful than Bob Lilly, Mel Renfro and the Doomsday Defense?

Here in Cowboy Country there’s wild enthusiasm for super-rooks Prescott and Zeke Elliott and the greatest offensive line since the D-Day invasion.

Prescott is drawing serious consideration among experts as the NFL’s Most Valuable Player. The Cowboys have the best record in the league, and I have friends who are making reservations for Super Bowl 51 (thank God we stopped the Roman numerals) in Houston.

But as much as I’m enjoying watching these Cowboys play every week, they’re probably not as good as we think they are.

In his soft, almost whispery voice, quarterback Joe Flacco, who’s won a Super Bowl, delivered a note of caution in the aftermath of his Baltimore Ravens’ 27-17 loss Sunday at JerryWorld.

“We should beat this team,” he said. “I’m not kidding.”

He was as emphatic as Joe Flacco can ever be. He’s notorious for lack of passion (ex-teammate Ray Lewis called him out on that), so Flacco’s analysis is less emotion-based, more objective than what we’d get from most football players.

“I felt like we should have scored a lot more points than we did today,” he said. “There are a lot of reasons for it.”

He did not specify those reasons. So I’m here to put words in his mouth.

  1. The Ravens abandoned their balanced offense.

Baltimore in the first quarter drove 90 yards, with Terrance West scoring on an 18-yard run. Dallas had trouble stopping the run when the opponent had dangerous pass catchers like the eternal Steve Smith and the late-exploding Mike Wallace. They consistently outmaneuvered Carr and a secondary sorely missing Mo Claiborne, lost for the season with a fractured hip.

Flacco attacked the Cowboys’ perimeter and was effective: 23 of 35 for 269 yards, a TD and no picks.

And Baltimore’s running game churned 101 yards at 6.3 per attempt. But coach John Harbaugh didn’t use it enough: only 16 rushes by Baltimore for the day.

Seeing the Ravens uncharacteristically pass-happy, Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli ordered more pressure. A blitzing Anthony Hitchens hit Flacco, as did ends DeMarcus Lawrence and Jack Crawford, who also recorded the one sacking of the visiting thrower. Hardly Doomsday stuff, but the Cowboys did what they had to do, stress the strong-armed Flacco enough to limit the scoring.

  1. Baltimore’s defense overcommitted to stopping the run.

Initially, stack-the-box worked.   Elliott found little room to run. The pass was open, but Prescott misfired on 7 of his first 13. He’s a shade less sharp a shooter than his rep; at 67.7 he’s sixth in the NFL in completion percentage – not really MVP.

The Cowboys punted on their first four possessions, but then Prescott, always unflappable, regained his sometimes elusive rhythm. He completed 13 of his last 21 throws against a defense that tried to cover Dez Bryant one on one.   The Ravens held Elliott to a modest 3.9 yards per rush for the day, but Bryant beat them for two touchdowns. Bad tradeoff.

Had the Ravens, 5-5, been more balanced, offensively and defensively, they might have scored the points Flacco thought were there to be claimed.

If the Cowboys are indeed headed for the Super Bowl, they probably must get by a team with a more talented all-round defense than Baltimore’s and a far more potent offense: the Seattle Seahawks.

Cowboyland is aware of Seattle, which on Sunday pummeled Philadelphia, which last month took Dallas into JerryWorld overtime.

Which did not alarm Cowboys Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin: “Dallas has the kryptonite to Seattle. They can be more physical than Seattle.”

Not sure about that. Seattle has the most lethal safeties in the NFL, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, who legally knocked a hole into Rob Gronkowski’s lung.

The ’Hawks are on the rise, led by passionate and accurate passer Russell Wilson, almost completely healed from ankle and knee injuries. Prescott is not as good now as Wilson, though he’s perhaps better than Wilson was as a rookie.

The ‘Hawks still have no O-line, with the notable exception of center Justin Britt. However, they do have a power runner, Thomas Rawls, now with a fully reunited ankle and having no trouble following Britt straight ahead.

Seattle coach Pete Carroll believes in risk. Opponents never know what to expect. Even after he lost a Super Bowl two years ago by calling for a pass at the goal line that was intercepted, Carroll has continued to be unconventional.

In Sunday’s game against Philly, offensive coordinator Doug Bevell designed a role-reversal pass from receiver Doug Baldwin to quarterback Wilson. Baldwin was so annoyed by the play that when it was called, in the third quarter, he flipped his right middle finger at Bevell. Then he threw a touchdown.

ESPN reported that after the game, Baldwin, still seething, said, “We’re in the fucking red zone and you want me to throw the ball? Throw me the ball.”

The Seahawks have all the swagger a team could want. But they, like Dallas and the rest, have injury worries. Thomas and cornerback DeShawn Shead could miss the next two games with strained hamstrings. And Rawls’ speedy rookie backup, C.J. Prosise, who opened scoring against Philly with a 72-yard run, could lose the rest of the regular season with a fractured shoulder blade.

Even so, the Seahawks seem more than capable of beating the Cowboys in the NFC Championship. They pass better and tackle better, and while they don’t block as well, or run the ball as well, I am not making Super Bowl reservations.


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