Sunday's game between the Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Ravens pits two division leaders against one another, as both teams look to build upon their respective cushions in the NFC East and AFC North. The Cowboys boast the best record in football at 8-1 while the Ravens are fortunate to sit atop the North with a mediocre 5-4 record.
The differences between these two squads don't end there, though. Dallas has arguably the best offense in the league while the Ravens struggle to score on a weekly basis thanks to Joe Flacco's inefficiency this season. The biggest discrepancy between the Cowboys and Ravens, however, is in the running game.
Dallas leads the NFL in rushing, averaging 161 yards per game on the ground. The Ravens are No. 1 against the run, allowing just 71.3 yards per game and 3.3 yards per carry.
Everything points to the Cowboys winning this game. It's in Dallas, the Cowboys have won eight in a row and the Ravens' only decent win came against a Steelers team that's now 4-5. So can Baltimore shock the world and upset the Cowboys? It's not likely, but it's possible -- and here's how.
The Ravens will need to get off to a good start. They'd be smart to receive the opening kickoff (assuming they win the coin toss) and put pressure on the Cowboys right out of the gate. The Ravens aren't explosive offensively and have punted more than any team in the NFL, but if they're going to score on the Cowboys, it better be early.
If the Ravens are able to drive down the field and score on the opening possession, it won't ensure them a victory, but it'll be as great of a start as they could ask for. It would put the ball in Dak Prescott's hands, forcing him to respond with a touchdown drive of his own.
Driving 70-plus yards against the Ravens' stout D won't be easy. And with Tony Romo expected to be active and in pads on the sidelines, you'd be foolish to think there wouldn't be added pressure in front of the home crowd to drive down and score a touchdown of his own.
Let's say the Ravens shut down the Cowboys' high-powered offense after opening the game with a score. Baltimore would then have the ball in its hands with a chance to pad the lead. Again, the Ravens will need to get off on the right foot and score right out of the gate. If not, this plan goes out the window.
On six of Dallas' nine opening drives, they've put points on the board. There's no guarantee that positive trend will continue against the Ravens' dominant defense, but there's a good chance the Cowboys will get at least three points.
This game won't be decided in the first five or 10 minutes, of course. There are other ways the Ravens can come away with a win. The biggest determining factor in this one will be Baltimore's ability to close in on Ezekiel Elliott before he gets going. Elliott is the game's best running back right now and has put up huge numbers against even the best defenses (157 yards against the Packers, 134 against the Bengals).
The rookie isn't afraid of anything standing between him and 100 yards on the ground, but the Ravens will be his toughest test yet -- and I do realize that was said when he faced the Bengals and then the Packers. The Ravens' run defense is legit, especially considering they're not blowing teams out of the water, and in turn forcing teams to throw the ball more often than not. Teams are simply opting not to run the ball against them given the lack of success they've had.
Baltimore has seen just 194 rush attempts (second-fewest) against its defense this season. That number will increase by at least 25 against the Cowboys, given the way Dallas has remained reliant on the run. However, should the Ravens stop Elliott early and retain a lead, Dallas could be forced to abandon the ground game a bit, though not completely.
Dallas has only had to play catch-up a few times this season. Against the Giants, briefly against the lowly 49ers, then against the Eagles and Steelers. Prescott was shaky when pressed against Philadelphia and wasn't great against the Giants (though he wasn't the same player then), and the Ravens could put him in a similar spot. The Cowboys are built to run the football, milk the clock and keep opposing offense off the field. They can come from behind, but it's not something they'd prefer to do.
When the Ravens are on offense, they have to take advantage of each and every opportunity. They have to hit big plays to Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman against the slower, less athletic Brandon Carr. Anthony Brown has been great as a rookie at corner for Dallas, but he's a first-year player prone to make a few mistakes throughout the game.
The Ravens punt more than any team in football, and that's likely to continue against the Cowboys. However, if they can hit on a few deep plays to their big-play receivers, they can make up for the lack of consistency. And when they reach the red zone, they have to convert. Field goals won't beat Dallas, nor will empty possessions. John Harbaugh has to be aggressive and go for six when faced with chances to do so -- even if it means gambling when he otherwise wouldn't.
The Ravens don't have a great shot of winning this game and I expect the Cowboys to roll to their ninth straight victory, but there is a formula to beating Dallas, and Baltimore's dominant defense is the key.