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Week 13 Primer: Cowboys @ Ravens

This Cowboys game is finally, actually happening.

NFL: NOV 20 Ravens at Cowboys Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Cowboys and Ravens were supposed to be the first game of Week 13, playing on Thursday after both played games on the previous Thursday, which was Thanksgiving. But a rampant outbreak of COVID-19 within the Ravens organization - which was so bad that four different strains of the virus were found - resulted in the NFL pushing back Baltimore’s Thanksgiving bout with the rival Steelers to Tuesday, thus pushing the Cowboys’ game back to this Tuesday.

It’s been a lot of uncertainty for these two teams, especially the Ravens, but the Cowboys will finally travel to Baltimore and play in a game after having 11 days off due to the postponement. The uncertainty continues still for the Ravens, as they’re still having players come off the COVID-19 reserve list, and news finally came on Sunday that reigning MVP Lamar Jackson would reportedly be activated in time to start against Dallas on Tuesday.

For the Cowboys, the mini-bye-week has been welcome. They were struck with injuries as both Zack Martin and Cameron Erving left the game on Thanksgiving and didn’t return. This will once again leave Dallas with Brandon Knight and Terence Steele as their starting tackles, bringing even more instability to a line that’s seen more turnover than a game featuring both Carson Wentz and Daniel Jones.

But more than that, Dallas had to play their Thanksgiving game just a day after losing their strength and conditioning coordinator, Markus Paul. The unexpected long rest gave players and coaches some much-needed time to work through all of the emotions stemming from that before jumping back into football preparations.

But now it’s game time, and the Cowboys face a really talented team in the Ravens, led of course by Jackson. After becoming the starter late in his rookie year (2018), Jackson led the Ravens to a 6-1 record (with the lone loss coming in overtime to the Chiefs) and made the playoffs after being 4-5 when he took over. As the full-time starter last year, Baltimore went 14-2 on the strength of Jackson, whose dual-threat play-style helped him amass 3,127 passing yards and 1,206 rushing yards with 43 total touchdowns.

But this year the Ravens haven’t been as dominant, especially as of late. They started out 6-2, with narrow losses to both the Chiefs and Steelers. But they’re now losers of three in a row, dropping them to 6-5; this makes each remaining game pivotal, as they’d miss out on the playoffs entirely if the season ended today.

Enter the Dallas Cowboys, a team that’s been ravaged by injuries all year and looked listless in quite a few games. Things have started to look up for the Cowboys in Mike McCarthy’s first year on the job, as they came within a few yards of upsetting the Steelers and pulled off the upset against the Vikings the week before getting blown out by the Washington Football Team. Even in that game, the Cowboys were close at the start of the fourth quarter, but Washington pulled away with a three touchdown outburst.

The point is these Cowboys have been playing pretty well lately for a team that’s started four different quarterbacks and an infinite amount of different starting combinations on the offensive line. We’re legally obligated to point out that the Cowboys are technically still in the playoff hunt as well, since the NFC East is shaping up to be the worst division in NFL history. A win against the Ravens would thrust them right into the thick of it again.

On paper, the Cowboys should get annihilated in this game. There are very few defenses that can actually contain Jackson, and this Dallas defense is nowhere close to being one of them. Meanwhile, this Ravens defense is top ten in both run and pass defense DVOA, and they have dangerous playmakers at every level.

But this game won’t be played on paper, and the reality is that the Ravens will likely still be without several key starters by Tuesday. Even for the ones who have returned after missing the Steelers game, like Jackson, that leaves precious little time to practice and get physically ready after being infected with a virus. How good can Jackson - a player whose style hinges almost entirely on his elite athleticism - be after not playing in 16 days, being infected during that time, and having maybe one day of practice beforehand?

Even for the Ravens players that weren’t infected with the virus, they played a game against a really physical Steelers squad just a week ago, while Dallas hasn’t played since Thanksgiving. There’s no telling what quality of play we can expect to see from the Ravens in these circumstances, and the same goes for this depleted Cowboys roster.

This storyline looms so large over this game that there’s hardly time to mention that Dez Bryant, now with the Ravens, will be facing his old team. After being signed to the practice squad earlier in the year, Bryant is now an active roster player and has appeared in the last two games, catching four passes for 28 yards. In a normal situation, that kind of reunion would be a top headline, but this season has proved to be anything but normal. Instead, it’s a focus on the big disparity between each team’s relative prep time for this game, one that could very well prove to be the difference maker for each team’s playoff odds.