A Tale of Two Teams

    I’d be hard-pressed to find two NFL teams that had different trajectories this season than the Baltimore Ravens and the Dallas Cowboys. They also happen to be my favorite teams. 

As Baltimore established itself as the best team in the NFL and unbelievably fun to watch, the Cowboys became the most excruciating. For every Lamar Jackson juke, there was an inexcusable Dallas drop; for every Baltimore rout of a Super Bowl contender, a heartbreaking, “oh so close” defeat for the Cowboys. As hype elevated the Ravens to the stuff of legend, reality crushed Dallas’s Super Bowl dreams.

I’ve never experienced an NFL season like 2019. Today, I’ll take a look at how so much went unbelievably great for one of my teams, while so much went horribly wrong for the other.

August/Preseason Expectations

Ravens: Coming off a 10-6 season, AFC North title, Wild Card Round defeat

Cowboys: Coming off a 12-4 season, NFC East title, Divisional Round defeat

    2018 was a pretty great season for me as a football fan. Both of my teams won their respective divisions and made some degree of noise in the playoffs. The biggest win was the emergence of rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson in Baltimore as a means to usher out the mediocre post-Super Bowl Joe Flacco era, creating a sense of excitement and hope for the Ravens’ future even despite a rough Wild Card loss to the Chargers. The Cowboys advanced past the Wild Card round before falling to eventual NFC representative Los Angeles, and, pretty much by default, were considered 2019 Super Bowl contenders in the crowded NFC.

    From there, the teams’ paths diverged. Dallas made headlines all offseason with multiple prominent contract issues, none more prominent than the holdout of running back Ezekiel Elliott. The team’s other stars, quarterback Dak Prescott and receiver Amari Cooper, turned down offers and chose to play out their final seasons while Elliott took a massive contract, setting the table for a high stakes 2019 season. Baltimore, on the other hand, took their experimental 2018 offense back to the proverbial lab and went about crafting a unit coach John Harbaugh deemed “revolutionary,” much to the amusement of the league.

    On paper, the Cowboys appeared to be the better team. They were Super Bowl contenders in a make-or-break year and were bringing All Pro center Travis Frederick, receiver Randall Cobb, tight end Jason Witten and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore into the fold without losing any major pieces. Baltimore added running back Mark Ingram and safety Earl Thomas but lost major pieces on defense, and questions about Lamar Jackson’s throwing ability seemed to limit the Ravens’ ceiling to that of Wild Card contender. Most, myself included, projected the Ravens to finish third in the division behind the ascending Browns and the more established Steelers. 

Regardless of my projections, I had high hopes and didn’t want to miss a thing (I even bought NFL Sunday Ticket so I could watch all of the action from my new digs in Chicago). Those games, and the drama between them, told more incredible stories than I could’ve ever expected.

September

Ravens: 59-10 Win over Dolphins, 23-17 Win over Cardinals, 33-28 Loss to Chiefs, 40-25 Loss to Browns; 2-2 Record

Cowboys: 35-17 Win over Giants, 31-21 Win over Redskins, 31-6 Win over Dolphins, 12-10 Loss to Saints; 3-1 Record

    When I turned on the TV in our house for the first time of the 2019 NFL season, I knew what I was getting — a Ravens win. Baltimore was up against the Miami Dolphins, a team that had stripped down its roster. What I was pleasantly surprised to watch was that quarterback Lamar Jackson was out-of-this-world brilliant. Jackson’s feathery touch on deep passes and all-around passing dominance helped the Ravens put up an astounding 59 points. Jackson kept it up against Arizona, and though the Ravens cut through two abysmal defenses to earn their first two wins, it signaled that Jackson had taken the next step as a passer.

    The excitement was dampened during the next two games, as Baltimore lost convincingly to Kansas City and division rival Cleveland. The Ravens’ defense was torched by Browns running back Nick Chubb, one week after giving up 374 yards and three touchdowns to Patrick Mahomes. The letdowns in games against accomplished teams seemed to cap the Ravens’ ceiling a bit, though at 2-2 the Ravens were by no means out of the playoff hunt.

    The early slate was easy sledding for the Cowboys, who won by double digits in three straight weeks against the Redskins, Dolphins and Giants. Prescott was a revelation, and while the defenses he faced were similarly poor, the offense, under new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, looked even better than its 2018 iteration. The offensive display quieted in a SNF loss in New Orleans, as the Cowboys put up just 10 points and fell to backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. But just like the Ravens, Dallas was still firmly in the playoff picture.

October

Ravens: 26-23 Overtime Win over Steelers, 23-17 Win over Bengals, 30-16 Win over Seahawks, Bye Week; 5-2 Record

Cowboys: 34-24 Loss to Packers, 24-22 Loss to Jets, 37-10 Win over Eagles, Bye Week; 4-3 Record

    In their next two games, both in division, the Ravens got it done. It took five quarters to beat the Big Ben-less Steelers, but Baltimore escaped Pittsburgh with their first division win and then held on to beat winless Cincinnati the following week. But it was the matchup between MVP candidates Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson that proved the Ravens were an elite team. By going to raucous Seattle and beating the Seahawks by two touchdowns, including a pick-six by recent acquisition Marcus Peters, the Ravens went into their bye having proven that they were capable of downing legitimate opponents. The Seattle win also launched the legend of Lamar Jackson (116 rushing yards and a key 4th down touchdown run) and immersed him into the MVP conversation.

    The Cowboys offensive woes continued into October. Green Bay’s Aaron Jones carved up Dallas’s offense and only a couple garbage time touchdowns from Prescott salvaged the score from being a rout. Then, the skid extended to three when the lowly New York Jets took an early lead and thwarted a Dallas comeback attempt, knocking the Cowboys to .500. The turbulence signaled that the Cowboys were not as dominant as 2018, but by crushing the Eagles 37-10, Dallas established itself as the king of the mediocre NFC East. That path to the playoffs would be a major theme of their season to come. 

November

Ravens: 37-20 Win over Patriots, 49-13 Win over Bengals, 41-7 Win over Texans, 45-6 Win over Rams; 9-2 Record

Cowboys: 37-18 Win over Giants, 28-24 Loss to Vikings, 35-27 Win over Lions, 13-9 Loss to Patriots, 26-15 Loss to Bills; 6-6 Record

    The Seattle win was a much-needed resume booster for Baltimore, but the Ravens’ Sunday Night Football win over rival New England, then an undefeated team, sent the Ravens into an entirely different stratosphere. Jackson looked electric and helped Baltimore build a 17-0 advantage, but Tom Brady’s Patriots cut the lead to 17-13 going into halftime. At this inflection point of their season, the Ravens seized the moment and put up three second-half touchdowns to run away with the game 37-20. The Ravens’ season was never the same after that, a game that may have been my favorite regular season game of all-time.

    From there, there was no stopping Lamar. He put a nasty spin move on multiple Bengals defenders the following week on a touchdown run, one of the many highlights of a 49-13 blowout. He proceeded to throw 4 touchdowns against the AFC South-leading Texans in a 41-7 showing, then upped the ante with 5 in a Monday Night Football beatdown of the defending NFC champions, the Los Angeles Rams. The Ravens were not only beating elite teams; they were blowing them out, and at a historic rate. And their quarterback, written off by many as a run-first player, was posting perfect passer ratings seemingly every other week. There was no catching the Ravens.

    The Cowboys failed to match that consistency. Prescott and co. again put up 37 in a win over the Giants, then dropped a primetime heartbreaker at Minnesota after stalling in the red zone. A win versus the Jeff Driskel-led Lions was a much-needed boost, only for a frustrating, touchdown-less loss to the Patriots to drop the Cowboys to 6-5. But it was enough to keep the Cowboys in the lead in the NFC East standings, and as long as the Cowboys could turn things around, a playoff berth was for the taking.

    But on Thanksgiving, the defining day of many a Cowboys season, Dallas got throttled by underdog Buffalo at home. The defense barely resembled the stingy unit of 2018, the offense couldn’t get going against great competition and another game that would’ve been circled earlier as a win was again shuffled to the loss column. 

Incredibly, it wasn’t the end. Due to the Eagles’ dysfunction, the Cowboys were still in the lead, even after all of the heartbreaking close losses and confusing results.

December

Ravens: 20-17 Win over 49ers, 24-17 Win over Bills, 42-21 Win over Jets, 31-15 Win over Browns, 28-10 Win over Steelers, 14-2 Record

Cowboys: 31-24 Loss to Bears, 44-21 Win over Rams, 17-9 Loss to Eagles, 47-16 Win over Redskins, 8-8 Record

    The Ravens put the final stamp on their dominant 2019 season by edging by the NFC-leading 49ers on a rainy Baltimore day, winning by a slim 20-17 margin. While it wasn’t pretty, Baltimore showed that it could battle through adversity and win when everything didn’t go right (even Lamar Jackson fumbled once). The Bills’ defense also held the Ravens’ attack in check but couldn’t knock them off entirely, and Baltimore cruised to victories in its final games to finish the season with a stunning 14-2 record and the top seed in the AFC. 

    Coach John Harbaugh told reporters in the offseason that the Ravens’ offense would be “revolutionary.” It was. Jackson beat the quarterback rushing record by 200 yards while also finishing first in passing touchdowns (36) and posting six games with over a 120.0 passer rating. He didn’t lose focus either, showing rare humility for an NFL superstar. The offense, built around four spectacular running threats and a trio of talented tight ends, was historic, while the defense emerged as one of the league’s top units after losing contributors from each level of the defense. Harbaugh, after many great seasons, finally earned his due as a Coach of the Year candidate. 

    For me, the Ravens’ season had an impact that no number could ever tell. Each victory brought back memories of the Ray Lewis-Ed Reed teams, the golden days of football for me, that were a force in the AFC in the early 2010s. Each Lamar Jackson highlight made me excited to embrace the future of football and allowed me to trash talk fans of other teams and text other Ravens fans even more vigorously. The team itself was a joy to watch, both during and after games. Even in a whole different time zone, I felt as close to and excited about the Ravens as ever. It was a season in which almost everything broke right, but without any feeling of artificiality or flukiness. 

    But it couldn’t be a perfect season of watching football. The Cowboys were putting the finishing touches on the most nauseating, disheartening, uninspired stretch of football any Dallas fan has ever seen. From my perch in the end zone of Soldier Field, I watched as the Cowboys, who I thought had already hit rock bottom, gave up big play after big play to embattled Chicago quarterback Mitch Trubisky and followed their traditional formula to a T — score on an early drive to give hope, then crumble in the first half to fall to a multi-possession deficit, only to put up garbage time points to cleanse the perception of a rout. Much like I had while watching the Ravens all season, I actually could not believe what I was seeing. 

    Still, the Cowboys were alive in the playoff hunt if they could beat the Eagles to win the NFC East. I had great hopes in September and October, and with each demoralizing loss, my faith in the team deteriorated even more. By the Bills game, I was thoroughly disgusted, and after the Bears game, I was almost begging for the torment to stop. The players had seemingly quit on the coaches, the defense had imploded, and Prescott was putting up big-time numbers but failing to light up the scoreboard in games (and in quarters) that mattered. The worst part was that all the talent of a Super Bowl team was there, right before my eyes, before owner Jerry Jones’s eyes, and the eyes of every fan in Cowboys nation. And still, all the Cowboys needed to do was beat an entirely depleted Eagles team that they had topped 37-10 earlier in the season to reach the playoffs. 

    The 17-9 loss to the Eagles was fittingly dismal. The Cowboys couldn’t score a touchdown, and whether it was dropped passes, fumbles, or overthrows, the game was sickening. After the early games that season, I’d think how the wins were so close and how one flipped play could’ve made the difference. By Week 16, I was entirely numb. Philly’s win the next week officially eliminated the Cowboys, mercifully ending the worst 8-8 season I’ve seen.

The Aftermath

    The Ravens entered the NFL playoffs with over a 35.7% chance of winning the Super Bowl, according to ESPN. I don’t know what will happen, but any result other than a Super Bowl win would be a misfit for the most dominant season I’ve seen by an NFL team. For the Cowboys, the story is over, although the prolongation of the decision of whether to retain head coach Jason Garrett is a humorously fitting epilogue.

    Following two favorite teams is an interesting burden. I don’t care or favor one team over the other, though it would’ve been a forgivable move this year provided the circumstances. And it guarantees heartbreak, as only one team can win the Super Bowl and end the season on a true high note. This season proved to me just how wild the experience of rooting for two separate teams can be. 

    To borrow from the Star Wars universe, the two seasons didn’t bring balance to the force. The great from the Ravens and horrible from the Cowboys didn’t offset each other, or even dilute the emotions about the other. 2019’s legacy for me will be that it was the greatest year I watched football. 31 teams lose the NFL each year. One team gets the ultimate victory, and if the Ravens do wind up winning their third Lombardi Trophy in a couple weeks, I’ll have witnessed a historic and unbelievably fun Super Bowl run, from August to February.

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