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Saints find their ground game, and reason for the NFC to worry

Photo: Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Mark Ingram's career day paved the way for the Saints' offensive domination of the helpless Cowboys.

NEW ORLEANS -- Maybe it wouldn't have made a bit of difference. Maybe even if Cowboys linebacker and leading tackler Sean Lee hadn't pulled a hamstring early in the second quarter, or defensive tackle and sack leader Jason Hatcher hadn't sat out with a stinger, the results would have been exactly the same.

Maybe the absence of Dallas safety J.J. Wilcox (knee) and nickel cornerback Morris Claiborne (hamstring) meant nothing in the grand scheme of things Sunday night at the Superdome, where the Saints ran roughshod over the Cowboys 49-17. Maybe it was just one of those games where New Orleans was going to make its opponents pay, and pay dearly.

After all, we've seen it plenty of times before. When the Saints truly get their surgical-precision offense going, it really doesn't matter who's playing defense against them. It could be the '85 Bears, and New Orleans would get its share of points and roll up some yards.

The banged up NFC East-leading Cowboys (5-5) were just the unlucky team in the way on this night, with the Saints determined to make up for last week's surprising 26-20 loss to the New York Jets and maybe send a full-throated Superdome-style message to the rest of the NFC: Don't forget about us. Seattle may be a conference-best 9-1 and coming off a dominant showing at Atlanta on Sunday. And Carolina (6-3) may be the flavor of the month, with five straight wins and a statement-game victory at defending NFC champion San Francisco in Week 10.

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But the Saints still think they've got their 2009 mojo and blueprint to victory back in place, and this was their latest primetime opportunity to showcase it and, dare we say, even add to their winning formula. Did you happen to notice the running game that gouged holes in the depleted Dallas defense throughout the course of the blowout win? Led by Mark Ingram's career-best 145 yards on the ground -- his first 100-yard game in his three NFL seasons -- the Saints ran for 242 yards, the franchise's highest single-game output since November 1990, against Cincinnati.

If the Saints can replicate and rely on anything close to that kind of running game in the season's second half and into the playoffs, maybe they can play the physical brand of ball that will put them in position to trade punches with the defensive-led Seahawks, Panthers and 49ers.

"We've been putting so much emphasis on the run game and we just wanted to come out here on a national stage and prove to everybody that we can play smash-mouth football and run the ball," said Ingram, the first Saints 100-yard rusher since Week 2 of last season, snapping an NFL-high 22-game drought in that department.

"When we go on the road and in the playoffs, you have to be able to run the ball. Everybody just thinks we're pass, pass and just run sometimes. But it was just important for us to show the world that we can come out and line up and hit you in the mouth and be efficient running the ball, and make big plays running the ball, and be explosive running the ball. As an offensive unit we wanted to prove that."

Pretty sure the rest of the NFC got the message, because against Dallas the Saints set an NFL record with 40 first downs in the game (15 of which came via the ground game) and piled up a franchise regular-season record 625 yards of offense, the most by any team in a non-overtime regular season game since San Diego gained 661 yards against Cincinnati in a December 1982 Monday Night Football classic. According to Pro Football Reference, the Saints are the first team since at least 1960 to amass at least 230 yards rushing and 380 yards passing in the same game.

"Yeah, I think people got the point,'' said Ingram, grinning. "But there's still much more we can improve on. We plan on playing a lot bigger games than this one."

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The Saints have a string of big games on the near horizon. At 7-2, and in possession of the NFC's No. 2 seed at the moment, New Orleans' postseason positioning will likely depend on the outcome of showdowns like next week at home against San Francisco (6-3), at top-seeded Seattle in Week 13 (on Monday night), and two games against division rival Carolina in a three-week span of December (Weeks 14 and 16).

The Saints started the night ranked just 27th in the league in rushing, averaging just less than 80 yards per game. But that number jumped all the way to 97.8 yards through nine games, with Ingram, Pierre Thomas (87 yards on 17 carries, one touchdown) and Darren Sproles (seven catches for 76 yards, two total touchdowns) all making plays out of the backfield. New Orleans wound up in almost perfect balance offensively against Dallas, throwing the ball 41 times and running it 38 for those 242 yards, 6.4 yards per carry and three touchdowns.

"We were hitting on all cylinders out there this game, and it was more of a balanced team," said Thomas, the Saints' leading rusher this season with 364 yards on 96 attempts (3.8 average). "We wanted to show everybody that we can run the ball, too. The offensive line did a heck of a job opening up the run game for Mark, myself and Sproles, and we needed to know we could get better at this ground game."

The real beauty of the Saints' showing against the Cowboys is that emphasizing the running game took nothing away from Drew Brees and the trademark passing assault. New Orleans shredded Dallas through the air, especially in the first half, when the Saints jumped out to a 28-10 lead. Brees tied a personal high and a team record with 19 consecutive completions at one point in the first half, and the Saints quarterback finished with a ridiculous 34 of 41 passing night, good for 392 yards, with four touchdowns, a 139 passer rating and nary an interception.

Brees fed nine different Saints pass-catchers, and his four touchdowns gave him 349 in his career, moving him past New England's Tom Brady and into fourth place on the NFL's career leader list. It was Brees' 23rd career four-TD performance, tying him with Brett Favre for second place all-time, three behind Peyton Manning (26).

"I just didn't expect this," a stunned Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "I never saw this coming. It's embarrassing to lose and it's embarrassing to not be representative and not be competitive. All of those things."

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Saints head coach Sean Payton repeatedly referenced the Cowboys being shorthanded defensively -- the loss of the play-making Lee in the middle can not be overstated -- but Dallas was out-gained 625-193 in total yardage (the NFL's third-highest differential in the last 25 years), had just nine first downs compared to the Saints' 40, and went 0-of-9 on third downs while New Orleans converted 9-of-12. A week after the Cowboys ran the ball just nine times in a win over Minnesota, Dallas quarterback Tony Romo on this night completed just 10 of 24 passes for 128 yards, with three sacks and one touchdown.

"You don't get a chance to play in games like this that often," Payton said, opting for understatement. "The team we played was banged up. [But running the ball] was a point of emphasis and I thought our guys handled it well. It's important for us to have that balance."

The Saints had it against the Cowboys, and it was a lethal combination on offense. If this team can run the ball, and keep up the physical style of play that demoralized Dallas, it can hang with anyone in the NFC's Super Bowl class. Of course, New Orleans at home in primetime has been nearly unstoppable for a while now, winning 12 in a row in that setting since the beginning of 2009. The Saints are 5-0 at the Superdome this year, but need to improve their road performance (they're 2-2 so far in 2013) in order to master a different sort of much-needed balance.

Ingram is right. Running the ball effectively on the road would signal even bigger games are in New Orleans' future this season. But Sunday night was an impressive display of muscle, and offensive firepower from everyone wearing black and gold.

"It feels great to finally have a good game,'' said Ingram, who missed five games earlier this season with a lingering toe injury. "I've been waiting for a 100-yard game since I got in the league. It's sweet. I got the NBC game ball and I'm going to cherish that forever. Just to think we did this on such a big stage with the whole world watching, it was just special tonight."

It'll be even more special for New Orleans and Ingram if it was a portent of things to come the next three months. The Saints would love to give the Dallas treatment to a few more opponents before the 2013 season is all said and done.

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