As we all penciled in conference title games among the few elite teams in the NFL and dreamt of another offensive spectacular in the Super Bowl, the Dallas Cowboys decided to make a statement on Thursday night.
DeMarcus Lawrence had said it earlier in the week, but who took him seriously? The Saints, winners of 10 straight and owners of the best record in football with the likely MVP under center, entered AT&T Stadium averaging 37.2 points per game.
Dallas didn’t care. With the fourth-best red-zone defense, third-best scoring defense and certainly the best young linebacking duo in football, the Cowboys choked out the Saints on national TV 13-10 just as Lawrence had earlier promised.
"They're going to have to match our intensity," Lawrence told reporters earlier in the week. "S---, for 60 minutes straight. If you hit a m-----f----- in the mouth and then they ain't doing what they're regularly doing, putting up 50 points, they start to get a little distressed. Now you got them where you want them at, and then you f---ing choke their ass out."
The Saints managed just 176 yards of total offense against the Cowboys. Not only was it a season low, but also a low in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era. The Saints hadn’t finished with fewer than 170 yards of offense in a game since 2002, when Aaron Brooks lost to the 49ers and Brees was a Charger.
Brees started the game 0-for-4 passing, something he’s never before done. The Saints, who started the night with just 14 three-and-outs all season, began the game with consecutive three-and-outs. By the end of the night, Brees would throw a game-sealing interception to Jourdan Lewis—just his third of the season—and head back to New Orleans with a 10-2 record.
Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith ran to the ball as well as they have all season long, and they’ve been running to the ball spectacularly all season. Vander Esch had 10 tackles, Smith had nine and, by the end of the night, Troy Aikman was wondering where—if?—Sean Lee will fit in when he returns from injury. It’s possible the two young linebackers will be the best duo at the second level in football by 2019.
In its most impressive outing of the season, there were still two glaring errors by the Dallas defense. And they both came from the same player.
The Cowboys took a chance and held on to Randy Gregory because of what he would do on the field. Sure, the multiple suspensions for violating the league’s substance abuse policy are headaches, but the thought went that he made your team better and he was worth it.
The embattled defensive end roughed punter Thomas Morstead late in the third quarter at midfield. It was to be Morstead’s fourth punt of the night, which would have tied his season high. Instead, Gregory’s penalty took the ball away from the Cowboys and gave it back to Brees. Three plays later, Keith Kirkwood had a 30-yard touchdown catch and the Saints trailed 13-10.
The next time Dallas’s defense took the field, the unit was nearly off it in four plays. Lawrence strip-sacked Brees and Tyrone Crawford recovered it at the New Orleans 32-yard line. But Gregory was lined up just offside and the play was negated. The Saints would go on to punt and eventually—obviously—lose, making Friday morning not as terrible for Gregory.
While the defense did its part to hold the Saints to just 49 offensive plays, the Cowboys’ offense maximized its 66 plays. Dallas owned time of possession all night, almost tripling the Saints in the first half and finishing with a nearly 14-minute edge on the clock.
Payton decided a dubious Michael Thomas catch and an incorrectly called Dan Arnold incompletion were worth using his two challenges on in the first 18 minutes of the game. While Payton was correct that Arnold did make a football move, fumbled and had it recovered by Michael Thomas, there was a cost associated with proving how right you are.
The Saints were left without a challenge for the rest of the game. New Orleans got a first-and-goal inside the 10 by virtue of winning the challenge, but would have had second-and-10 from the 22 without the challenge. The Saints failed to punch it in on fourth down with Alvin Kamara and the Cowboys took over. Was the challenge worth it?
With five minutes left in the game, Cole Beasley would be more than a yard short of the line to gain on third down on a P.J. Williams tackle. But the officials missed Beasley’s knee touching the ground and only saw him lunge for the first down. Beasley was gifted the first down and Payton would be handcuffed to his fate as Dallas extended the drive and bled more of the clock.
Going into Thursday, the thinking went that the Cowboys would lose this game and move to 6-6. Then 5-6 Philadelphia would face 6-5 Washington on Monday night and beat Colt McCoy. That would send the NFC East into a three-way, first-place tie at the season’s quarter-pole. Instead the 7-5 Cowboys are in total control and riding a four-game winning streak just one month after it seemed like Jerry Jones was waiting until New Year’s to find a new head coach.
The loss for New Orleans is more of a setback than anything. The Saints are still an offensive juggernaut and should win the NFC South and get a first-round bye.
The win for Dallas says much more. The offense has been clicking for weeks since the Amari Cooper trade, and now it’s proven that the Cowboys have a defense that can not only play with, but beat, the best of them.