Cowboys tap into great potential in upset of the once-perfect Saints

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NEW ORLEANS -- Walking 10 blocks down Poydras to the Superdome late Saturday afternoon, this game had the feeling of a coronation. This city was on fire. No self-respecting pedestrian was without a Saints jersey, T-shirt, hat ... or beer. On the streets, being sold out of coolers by passersby. A real party scene, complete with a flatbed truck going by, playing U2's "The Saints Are Coming'' from the night the team came back to the rebuilt Superdome in 2006. In six hours, the Saints would be 14-0, and the party would move to the French Quarter.

Then the Dallas Cowboys played the game Jerry Jones was sure they had in them but just hadn't shown. Say what you will about the 24-17 survival test, but this is all that counts: Tony Romo made plays when it counted, the defensive front made plays when it counted, and on this night, the Cowboys were the better team. Nothing fluky about it. The five ways Dallas beat up the Saints and ruined their shot at a perfect season:

1. The Cowboys' front seven never let Drew Brees get comfortable. By my count, through three quarters, Dallas moved Brees off his spot in the pocket -- either by sacking him or flushing him from the pocket -- on 50 percent of his pass drops (12 of 24). Brees never got comfortable or in a rhythm all night. That was huge.

2. The two bookend outside linebackers, Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware, played the kind of big game that justified the faith Dallas showed in them. Spencer was drafted 26th overall in 2007, Ware 11th overall by the Cowboys in 2005. And with a combined seven tackles, four sacks, four quarterback pressures, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery, Ware and Spencer accomplished two things: They showed that Sean Payton should have kept more men in to protect Brees; and they showed the holes in the Saints' regular protection schemes, near left tackle Jermon Bushrod. Ware, whose status was in doubt before the game because of his scary neck sprain last week against San Diego, didn't take any snaps off -- from what I saw -- and looked like the classic home-wrecker

3. Tony Romo stared defeat in the face and wouldn't succumb. Third-and-seven, Dallas 27-yard line, 6:29 left in the game, Dallas up 24-17. The Superdome was so loud you couldn't read sign language. Calmly, Romo hit Miles Austin on a short cross over the middle; gain of 32. Then he hit third-string tight end John Phillips up the left sideline for 23 yards, then backup wideout Sam Hurd for six. "Maturity,'' offensive coordinator Jason Garrett told me in the locker room. "Plus, he's pretty good.''

4. The Cowboys' secondary has played well in recent weeks, but nothing like they played Saturday in the dome. The combination of Terence Newman at left corner and Mike Jenkins on the right side wreaked havoc with Brees and his quick-strike offense all night. "We did nothing different than normal," Jenkins said. "We've been playing pretty good, and I have all the respect in the world for Drew Brees. But we know we can cover, and tonight, we covered."

5. Finally, Marion Barber and Felix Jones held up their end. The Cowboys rushed for 145 clock-eating yards, with 120 on 31 carries from Barber and Jones. That took the pressure off Romo, who threw for 312 yards (and one TD) and kept Dallas mostly out of 3rd and longs. For Dallas to play meaningful football in January, Barber needs to be a punishing inside runner and Jones must make people miss on the perimeter. Jones didn't do much of that against the Saints, but Barber leveled New Orleans defenders on many carries. If Dallas plays like this against Washington and Philadelphia in the last two weeks, the Cowboys will be a playoff team. And no one will want to play them on Wild Card Weekend. Now they've just got to play a couple more games like this one. But hasn't that always been this team's problem?