Instead of the Cowboys unveiling their victory celebration following the final game at Texas Stadium, the Ravens turned it into a funeral Saturday night with a 33-24 victory. The Ravens (10-5) silenced the heavily partisan crowd while propelling themselves into prime position to clinch a ticket to the playoffs next week in the last game of the regular season.
"I guess it wasn’t a homecoming," said running back Willis McGahee in a reference to the Cowboys allegedly requesting the Ravens for this historic game. "It was a mock funeral. We spoiled their day."
Fullback Le’Ron McClain’s career-high 82-yard touchdown run in the final minutes is the longest run by a visiting runner in the venerable stadium’s 37-year history, and a previous 77-yard bolt from McGahee in the fourth quarter put an exclamation point on the win. They provided just enough insurance to halt an aborted Cowboys rally led by quarterback Tony Romo.
With Cowboys legends Roger Staubach, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Randy White, Tony Dorsett and Deion Sanders in the house for a series of tributes, the Ravens stole the show. Despite two late fourth-quarter touchdown passes from Romo to wide receiver Terrell Owens and tight end Jason Witten to bring the Cowboys to within a few points, the Ravens managed to close out Dallas and brought down the house against America’s Team.
"My guys were excited, I think they fed off of it a little bit," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, whose team became the third team since 1996 to defeat a team closing its old stadium. "I think they were looking forward to coming here to put this place to bed. I think we did it in a very fitting way for the Ravens."
By toppling the Cowboys (9-6) with a win that included Mason gutting it out through a shoulder injury to catch a key third quarter touchdown pass and Reed intercepting Romo twice, the Ravens remained in possession of the sixth and final playoff berth in the AFC.
With a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars (5-10) next week at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens will make the playoffs as the second wild-card entry.
"We had a lot of politics that made this game more fun," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "They personally recommended us as their homecoming opponent. To me, that’s the ultimate disrespect. We just fed off of that the whole game. We hope they enjoy their ceremony, but I guess we were the dynamite.
"Their offensive coordinator, Jason Garrett, was supposed to be our coach and then he turned it down. He didn’t want to coach these men. He didn’t think we were the type of guys he wanted to coach. We just relished the fact that we got a chance to spoil their homecoming. We’re the party crashers."
The 6-foot, 260-pound McClain huffed and puffed his way into the end zone on his big run. He broke through two tackles and stiff-armed safety Ken Hamlin on his way to the end zone.
"You know how big my eyes got," McClain said. "I just heard, ‘Run, run, run.’"
One of the signature moments of the game transpired when Mason, who was in and out of the game three times after aggravating a painful dislocated left shoulder, caught a 13-touchdown pass from Flacco.
Mason was unable to lift his bad left arm on the one-handed catch, pump his arm while running his pattern or follow through on the baseball swing he usually does to celebrate touchdowns, but he still beat cornerback Anthony Henry in the left corner of the end zone. It broke a season-long slump of seven consecutive trips inside the red zone without a touchdown.
"It’s hard for me to raise my arm," Mason said. "It got better at halftime, but it was still hard to run and move my arm. I took some medication. Joe has done an excellent job for me. He’s putting the ball right where I don’t have to move my hands."
Added Harbaugh: "It’s a credit to Derrick Mason. He’s one of the toughest players I’ve ever been around."
Mason’s touchdown was set up punter Sam Koch easily running for a first down on a fake field goal. The Cowboys unwittingly had eight players lined up on the left side, opening up a gaping lane for the former high school fullback and linebacker to run through.
"That may have been the play of the game," Harbaugh said. "We planned to run it all along and it’s something we’ve been working on all year. Jerry Rosburg [special teams coordinator] is an aggressive person and he likes to get things done."
Strong safety Jim Leonhard’s punt return granted the Ravens excellent field position on the drive, on a 23-yard return down to the Cowboys’ 37-yard line.
During that drive, the Ravens had some luck, too.
When McClain fumbled on Pro Bowl outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware’s tackle, safety Ken Hamlin had the ball in his grasp and then lost it as popped directly into Mason’s hands for the recovery.
Five plays later, Mason was in the end zone.
Flacco clearly outplayed Romo, completing 17 of 25 passes for 149 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions for a 96.9 quarterback rating. Romo completed 24 of 45 passes for 252 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions for a 66.2 rating.
Flacco endured the tremendous heat generated by a talented Cowboys defensive line that pushed around the Ravens’ offensive line for five sacks by halftime.
"Sacks are sacks, at the end of the day as long as you do what you need to do on the other drives, you can overcome sacks," Flacco said. "There isn’t any time to be down. You have the whole game to come back, get yourself together and we did that."
And the Cowboys’ lack of discipline cost them in the fourth quarter when linebacker Bradie James pushed McGahee out of bounds for an unnecessary roughness penalty.
That set up kicker Matt Stover’s fourth field goal of the game from 35 yards out to push the lead to nine points.
Stover kicked his third field goal of the game from 29 yards out with two seconds remaining in the second quarter after Reed intercepted Romo for the second time.
Romo’s pop fly was directed toward Owens, the controversial star who has reportedly been feuding with Romo and Witten. He made no effort to adjust to the football or knock it down as Reed gathered in the short-armed throw and returned it 29 yards to the Ravens’ 49-yard line with 43 seconds remaining in the half.
Earlier in the quarter, Stover kicked a 37-yard field goal after the Ravens took over possession at the Cowboys’ 46-yard line following an 18-yard Leonhard return.
Stover kicked the first of his three first-half field goals following a 10-play, 64 yard drive keyed by Flacco running the no-huddle offense effectively.
During the Cowboys’ opening drive, Romo carelessly threw the football up for grabs while looking deep for Roy Williams. And Reed capitalized with his first interception of the game.
Unfortunately for the Ravens, though, the interception was as effective as a punt as it pinned them on their own eight-yard line.
Three plays later, Ware burst into the backfield past flailing offensive tackle Adam Terry. His speed was just too much to handle, dashing past Ware for a sack and forced fumble recovered by defensive end Greg Ellis.
That set up Cowboys rookie running back Tashard Choice for Dallas’ lone touchdown of the first half.
Choice busted up the middle for a two-yard score to stake the Cowboys to a 7-0 advantage in the first quarter. He rushed for 90 yards on 17 carries, but it wasn’t enough against a determined Baltimore squad.
"The bottom line was I think a lot more of the pressure was on them than it was on us with all the stuff that was going on," Lewis said. "Bottom line is all we have to do is get in the dance: win the game for 60 minutes and we did that. .. This team has its own identity, but it’s a great identity."
NOTES: Cornerback Samari Rolle sprained his foot in the second half. … Offensive tackle Willie Anderson injured his left ankle and left the game, but X-rays were ruled negative. .. The Ravens improved to 26-8 when Reed intercepts a pass and 7-0 when he picks off two passes. … Following Suggs and Lewis combining on a sack in the first quarter, Suggs mocked Owens by spelling out a "T" and an "O" on the famous Cowboys’ midfield star. … The Ravens dedicated the win to director of player development O.J. Brigance, who is fighting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Brigance attended the game in the press box.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.