Ravens have had problems in kick game

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Ravens have had problems in kick game

FOXBORO -- The matchups for Sunday's AFC title game have been well-established: Great Offense vs. Great Defense. Vindication-seeking Defense vs. Vindication-seeking Quarterback.

Yet the oft-forgotten third element of the game, special teams, could also play a deciding role on Sunday.

The kicking game was an area of concern for the Ravens for much of the regular season. They ranked 31st in the NFL in yards allowed per kickoff return (29.2) and 24th in the league in yards allowed per punt return (11.9). They were also prone to giving up big plays when kicking it away. They tied Carolina, Oakland and Seattle with three kicks allowed for touchdowns (2 kickoff returns, 1 punt return).

When Baltimore received the ball, the results weren't much better as its special teamers had a tendency to put the ball on the ground. Kickoff return man David Reed fumbled three times during the regular season, including two on kickoff returns in a 22-17 Week 10 loss to the Seahawks.

Starting cornerback Ladarius Webb returned the first Texans kick in their Divisional Playoff game last week, but he fumbled that job away, too -- literally and figuratively. Though Webb continued to return punts for the Ravens, Tom Zbikowski received kicks for the remainder of last week's game.

With some uncertainty among Baltimore's return men, might the Patriots smell an opportunity for a game-changing play on special teams?

"We try to get the ball out every time if we could," New England special teams captain Matthew Slater said on Friday. "Those guys have had their problems but they're still a very tough unit. We have our work cut out for us, especially with coach John Harbaugh and his background in special teams. They'll be ready. I'm sure they'll be holding on to the ball, they'll make it tough on us."

The Patriots haven't been world-beaters returning kicks. They ranked 29th in the league in return yards per kickoff (21.4) and 16th in the league in punt returns (10.3). But if they can force a special teams turnover, it could change the entire tenor of a contest that may be kept close because of how the Ravens and Pats match up in the game's other phases.

One more trend worth keeping an eye on is how Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff kicks away from home. He has struggled kicking on the road this year, with all nine of his missed kicks coming away from Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium. He's seen a significant drop-off in accuracy since last season, too, hitting on just 75.7 percent of his kicks after making a Pro Bowl-worthy 89.7 percent of his tries last season.

BOSTON SPORTS TONIGHT PODCAST: Reaction to weekend protests

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BOSTON SPORTS TONIGHT PODCAST: Reaction to weekend protests

0:41 - Tom Giles, Tom Curran, Kayce Smith, and Michael Holley discuss the National Anthem protests across the NFL over the weekend and the reactions to players kneeling.

10:07 - Michael Hurley joins the BST crew to talk about the Patriots' thrilling last-minute victory over the Texans and how concerning the Patriots' issues on defense are.

18:13 - Michael Holley and Kayce Smith discuss Kyrie Irving and LeBron James' comments about one another during Media Day, including LeBron referring to Kyrie as "The Kid" instead of his name.

22:30 - Evan Drellich joins BST to talk about Mookie Betts and Eduardo Nunez both leaving with injuries during the Red Sox's Monday night loss to the Blue Jays, and other concerns surrounding the team heading into the postseason.

MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL: Prescott, Cowboys pull away to beat Cardinals, 28-17

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MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL: Prescott, Cowboys pull away to beat Cardinals, 28-17

GLENDALE, Ariz. , Dak Prescott kneeled with his teammates and team owner before the game, flipped head over heels for a touchdown in the first half and capped his night with a 37-yard TD pass that proved to be the game winner.

The Dallas Cowboys erased last week's ugly memory on Monday night, with their young quarterback leading the way.

"He just kept battling," Dallas coach Jason Garrett said.

"He kept making good decisions. Obviously he made some good plays, big-time throws, but as much as anything else he's got an amazing spirit and our players follow him."

The Cowboys (2-1), bouncing back from a 42-17 pummeling in Denver, began the game kneeling at midfield with owner Jerry Jones in a show of unity that followed widespread protests across the NFL of critical comments by President Donald Trump over the weekend.

After they kneeled, they stood and walked to the sideline and stood for the anthem.

"We planned and it was executed that we would go out and kneel," Jones said, "and basically make the statement regarding the need for unity and the need for equality."

Prescott, 13 of 18 for 183 yards, broke a 14-14 tie with a 37-yard scoring pass to Brice Butler with 11:52 to play.

"I immediately scrambled and when I scrambled Brice took the right angle and the right initiative going to the back of the end zone," Prescott said.

Arizona, with a spectacular catch by Larry Fitzgerald for 24 yards on a third-and-18 play, moved downfield but the drive stalled. Phil Dawson's 37-yard field goal cut the lead to 21-17 with 6:35 left.

Ezekiel Elliott, who gained 8 yards on nine carries against Denver and drew criticism for not hustling after a couple of late interceptions, was bottled up much of the game, but still gained 80 yards on 22 attempts, 30 on one play. He ran 8 yards for the final Cowboys touchdown.

The Cardinals (1-2), in their home opener, got a big game from Fitzgerald, who caught 13 passes for 149 yards, in the process moving ahead of Marvin Harrison into eighth in career receiving yards. The 13 receptions tied a career high.

"That's Fitz. It's Monday night," Arizona coach Bruce Arians said. "He's a money player. It was a great performance by him. It's a shame we couldn't play better around him."

Carson Palmer had a big first half, completed 15 of 18 for 145 yards and finished 29 of 48 for 325 yards and two scores. He was sacked six times, a career-high three by DeMarcus Lawrence.

The Cardinals dominated the first half statistically, but were deadlocked with the Cowboys at 7-7. Arizona had a 152-57 advantage in yards and dominated time of possession 19:34 to 9:41.

Arizona took the opening kickoff and went 82 yards in eight plays. Palmer was 5-for-5 on the drive, capped by a 25-yard touchdown pass to Jaron Brown.

Before Dallas even had a first down, Arizona mounted a nearly nine-minute drive but a touchdown pass to Brown was negated by a holding penalty and Phil Dawson's 36-yard field goal try was wide right. It was the third mid-range miss for the 41-year-old kicker this season.

And the miss left the door open for the Cowboys to get back in it.

Prescott scored on a 10-yard run, flipping head-first over the goal line to tie it at 7-7 with 3:33 left in the half.

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