The Dallas Cowboys have been off since an embarrassing prime-time performance that prompted talk they could miss the playoffs for a third straight season.
In reality, they're just slightly off the pace in the NFC East, but the next month-long stretch could determine if they are, in fact, a contender.
The Cowboys open a difficult portion of the schedule Sunday against a Baltimore Ravens team that hasn't lost a regular-season home game in nearly two years.
Dallas (2-2) went into its bye week reeling after Tony Romo matched a career worst with five interceptions in a 34-18 home loss to Chicago on Oct. 1. Romo and receiver Dez Bryant seemed out of sync and the Bears returned two of the picks for touchdowns.
"This has to be a wakeup call for us," Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten said
The Cowboys, one of the league's lowest-scoring teams with an average of 16.3 points, return from their bye only one-half game back of Philadelphia and New York in the division.
"We're not going to quit," Witten said. "We're going to stay together. I believe we have the right people. Great leadership in Jason (Garrett). We'll get it turned around."
Dallas must do so quickly with four of its next five games on the road, with four contests against division leaders - Atlanta, Philadelphia, the Giants and Ravens (4-1).
Like the Cowboys, Baltimore didn't look particularly sharp in its last game, but still managed to beat Kansas City 9-6 last Sunday.
The Ravens failed to score a touchdown for the first time in 43 regular-season games and the defense allowed 214 rushing yards, its most since Oct. 5, 1997, against Pittsburgh. Despite the struggles, the offense got two key first downs to chew up the final 4:24 of clock and the defense stepped up when it mattered, keeping the Chiefs out of the end zone.
"There are a lot of things we're not pleased with," coach John Harbaugh said. "We're chasing our A-game every week. We want to have our A stuff. It's like a pitcher, we want to have our best stuff every week. We didn't have our best stuff."
A return to Baltimore might help the Ravens get their swagger back.
Harbaugh's team has won 13 straight regular-season home games, the NFL's longest active streak, and Joe Flacco and the offense have looked considerably better in front of their fans.
In this season's three home games, Baltimore has averaged 32.7 points and 457.0 yards with two total turnovers. In two road games, the Ravens have combined for 32 points with an average 311.5 yards while turning the ball over twice in each.
Flacco, who completed 48.1 percent of his passes for a season-low 187 yards in Kansas City, is averaging 345.7 passing yards with six TDs in Baltimore.
While Flacco struggled last week, Ray Rice finished with a season-best 102 rushing yards on 17 carries. Since 2010, the Ravens are 10-0 when he runs for at least 100 yards.
The Cowboys have allowed an opposing rusher to reach 80 only once in the last seven games but have struggled mightily with their own ground game, entering Week 6 ranked 29th in the NFL with an average of 67.8 rushing yards. DeMarco Murray ran for 131 yards on 20 carries in a season-opening 24-17 victory over the Giants, but he's since been held to 106 on 41 attempts.
Most of the Cowboys' troubles, however, fall on their quarterback's shoulders.
Although Romo is completing 66.9 percent of his passes and is on pace for a career-high 4,592 yards passing, he has an NFC-high eight interceptions - only two fewer than he had in 522 attempts last season. He passed for 252 yards with two touchdowns and two INTs in his only career game against Baltimore, a 33-24 home loss in 2008.
The veteran Ravens defense, led by 37-year-old Ray Lewis, have six picks on the year and have forced 12 turnovers, fourth-most in the NFL through Week 5.
"You know they're going to be physical. They play that way. That's their style," Cowboys defensive lineman Marcus Spears said of the Ravens. "Obviously they've been playing great ball for a while. But we've got to go up there and handle our business. It's not about them, it's about us."
Dallas hopes center Phil Costa (back), Pro Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff (ankle) and linebacker Anthony Spencer (strained pectoral) can return after extra time off for the bye.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
All Rights Reserved