Breaking down Saturday's Dallas Cowboys at New Orleans Saints game (8:20 p.m., NFL Network)...
1. Ground Wars: Who can establish the running game? We all know what these two teams can do through the air. The Saints and Cowboys boast formidable passing attacks that rank among the top six in passing yards and 20-plus yard plays. And their respective quarterbacks each place among the top 10 passers individually. But in this game of keep-your-opponent's-offense-off-the-field-longer, their accomplished array of clock-crunching runners could and should play an even larger role. Simply put, if Marion Barber/Felix Jones/Tashard Choice can gash the Saints and rack up a few 10-minute drives throughout this contest, it leaves less time for Drew Brees to light up the scoreboard. And vice versa.
Not that running is -- or should be -- an afterthought for either of these teams. Consider what happens when Dallas and New Orleans don't get their rushing games going. The Saints have experienced three legitimate scares during the latter half of this season: against the Panthers, Redskins and Falcons. Those three games also account for every time they have failed to rush either 26 times or for at least 100 yards. (Note: The Saints were without either Reggie Bush or Mike Bell two of those games, and both are expected to play this week.) In those games they have one total rushing touchdown, and their average margin of victory is just 5.3 points. Not good for a team that scores 36 points per game.
Same goes for the Cowboys. They've played five games in which they were held under 110 yards rushing, and those games account for four of their five losses. The question for Dallas will be: Can they get the ground game going early enough to offset any New Orleans points? Because as soon as the Saints go up 14-0, that stable of Cowboys backs and that beefy line are all for naught.
2. Where does Dallas's pressure come from -- or what happens without it? The simple fundamentals of the Cowboys' 3-4 defense dictate that their pressure come from three down linemen, like nose tackle Jay Ratliff, or from one of their outside linebackers -- not from blitzing middle backers. But without OLB DeMarcus Ware, who seems unlikely to play this week (sprained neck), the pressure could be seriously neutered. Ware's absence could prove especially problematic against a guy like Brees, even more so because the Cowboys cornerbacks -- including the physical Terence Newman -- are likely to play press coverage against the Saints' receivers. The press works well if Brees has only a few heartbeats to throw; less so if he has time to wait for his route-runners to shake free. Can the Cowboys create pressure without their sack master? If not, it's trouble.
3. Saints on the mend. When we assign asterisks alongside sports records, there are usually qualifiers. ...But he was juiced. ...But they'd violated such-and-such NCAA code. Rare is the asterisk that stands for ...and he did it despite. Such is the case with these Saints. And so, as we come to the end of the season, and as they get healthier (and with a likely playoff bye coming up) it's prudent to remember that these Saints eked out wins against the Dolphins, Panthers, Redskins and Falcons despite an array of wide-spreading injuries.
We've already detailed the plight of the backfield, but New Orleans has also spent a serious amount of time without Lance Moore at receiver. The defense has been hit even harder. It spent four rough games without run-stopper Sedrick Ellis, and lately it's been without linebacker Scott Fujita (knee) as well as corners Jabari Greer (sports hernia) and Tracy Porter (knee). Everyone but Greer, who just had surgery this week, should be back this week against Dallas. And New Orleans without the asterisk is mighty dangerous.
Every week, I lend my thoughts on a few particularly startable or sit-worthy players. Here's who's I like in this Week 15 matchup:
Miles Austin -- New Orleans ranks 21st in the league by allowing an average of 5.5 yards after the catch, and it has allowed 30 20-plus yard plays in its last eight contests (19th in the league) -- all of which points to a productive matchup for this YAC master.
Tony Romo -- Start Romo in December? Well, Romo has 641 yards and five touchdowns with zero interceptions in his past two starts, both against Top 10 secondaries. He's winless in those games, but that doesn't show up on the fantasy stat line.
Jeremy Shockey -- Someone's gotta pick up the slack if Dallas's press coverage limits New Orleans' array of receivers. That'll be either Bush out of the backfield or Shockey in some one-on-ones that he can easily win.
Reggie Bush/Pierre Thomas/Mike Bell -- Pity the playoff contender who starts anyone from the crowded-as-ever Saints backfield. Week 15 will mark just the seventh time all season that everyone in this trio suits up together. And only once all year has anyone in that time topped even 90 yards rushing (Thomas: 91 yards versus Atlanta). Individually, these guys average 38 yards a week in those games. If you had to pick someone, however, it ought to be Bush, who's managed five touchdowns (four rushing, one receiving) in this situation.
Roy Williams -- Williams is two weeks removed from his best game as a Cowboy, but his mid-week trash talking puts a big target on his back. On Tuesday he boasted, "If we pack our bags and show up in New Orleans on Saturday night, we should be victorious." Not the kind of attention he wants with safety Darren Sharper lurking around.
If I'm Sean Payton, my thinking goes like this: We lay it all out on the line against Dallas; then, with homefield throughout all but sealed, we coast through Tampa and Carolina, teams we should defeat with our B team playing. Knowing that a few weeks of rest are bought with a win, Brees will chuck a few and then let the backs command the second half. Romo will try to keep pace, but it's not in the cards for Dallas. The Ware injury is just too much of a handicap for a unit that couldn't create pressure at all early in the season. Saints 43, Cowboys 27