The New Orleans Saints and Dallas Cowboys have experienced life without their star players, and the results appear in the loss column. The Saints' wait for Drew Brees appears to be over - and they hope a win finally follows.
Coach Sean Payton says he expects Brees to return Sunday night as the Saints host the Cowboys, who continue on without Tony Romo and Dez Bryant.
Both teams lost without their star quarterbacks last week, New Orleans dropping to 0-3 with a 27-22 road loss to Carolina and Dallas suffering its first defeat by a 39-28 score at home to Atlanta.
Brees missed last week's game with a bruised rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder, but he's been taking first-team snaps in practice since Wednesday and making an array of throws while working on his rehabilitation.
The Saints desperately need a victory as the Panthers and Falcons, fellow NFC South teams, are unbeaten.
''It's certainly a hole. There is no way to sugarcoat that,'' Payton said. ''We can't go play this game quick enough and because, listen, there is that sense of urgency to get a win.''
Backup Luke McCown wasn't the problem against the Panthers, finishing 31 for 38 for 310 yards with an interception. The Saints held a 16-10 advantage early in the third quarter before Carolina scored 17 straight.
''For his first start, I thought Luke did a really good job,'' Payton said. ''But our margin of error isn't that good to overcome.''
The Cowboys (2-1) have lost eight of 10 against New Orleans, though they won last year's September meeting in Dallas handily, 38-17.
Sunday's game will feature a few different faces for Dallas. The Cowboys are without Romo until at least Week 11 after they placed him on the injured list with a designation to return. Romo broke his left collarbone during a 20-10 win over Philadelphia in Week 2, adding to the sting of Bryant's broken foot in the opener.
Dallas' immediate future now falls to backup Brandon Weeden and a receiving corps that hasn't produced much in Bryant's absence. Weeden has lost nine straight starts dating to December 2012 and has thrown more interceptions (29) than touchdowns (27) in his career.
Weeden looked poised to help the Cowboys move to 3-0 last week, holding a 28-17 halftime lead behind three Joseph Randle rushing touchdowns. The Falcons, though, scored all 22 second-half points.
Weeden completed 22 of 26 for 232 yards with an interception.
The Cowboys haven't stretched the field much, and Weeden's only downfield pass last week resulted in a defensive penalty. Dallas ranks near the bottom of the NFL with 10.3 yards per completion and average yards at catch of 4.2. The Cowboys have three passing plays of 25-plus yards.
The Saints rank near the bottom of the league with seven passing plays of 25 or more yards allowed.
"We've got vertical plays called," Weeden told the Cowboys' official website. "But if (the defenders) bail out, there's huge voids in the zone underneath. I felt like I was efficient as far as that goes."
Dallas ranks ninth in the league with 826 passing yards, but only 322 of them have gone to wide receivers, including the 48 yards Bryant registered before his injury. Running back Lance Dunbar has 21 catches for 215 yards while tight end Jason Witten has 21 for 181.
Terrance Williams has taken over the top receiving slot in Bryant's absence. He dropped his only two targets last week but continued to back Weeden.
"He didn't try to force the ball down the field," Williams said. "There were some times (to get the ball outside), but it's my job to be ready, no matter if it's toward the end of the game or the first. There's no excuses for dropping passes."
The Saints traded defensive tackle Akiem Hicks to New England in exchange for tight end Michael Hoomanawanui on Wednesday. Hicks has been a starter since 2013 but had his playing time trimmed recently by Payton.