The Cowboys maintained all weeks that they believed in themselves. That they remained optimistic about their game against New Orleans and their season.
They showed the Cowboys fan base why,casting the Saints from their perfect cloud, 24-17 in the Superdome Saturday night. Dallas scored early, racing to a 14-0 lead after two possessions, while the defense stymied the nitroglycerin Saints office. The front held the 3- point-per-game Saints to three points through three quarters, then withstood two late Saints touchdown drives.
The team also overcame the bleeding ulcer that is its kicking game. Nick Folk missed a gimme, a 23 yarder from the middle of the field (three yards longer than an extra point) by clanging it off the right upright. The miss resembled the Saints-Redskins game, where Shaun Suisham missed a similar kick, letting the Saints rally and win in overtime.
The Cowboys rush prevented another comeback, as Anthony Spencer and Demarcus Ware flattened Drew Brees on the final two Saints snaps. Spencer stripped the ball from Brees, but New Orleans earned a brief reprieve when replays showed Brees arm was moving forward as Spencer hammered it.
Ware ended the drama on the following play when he blew past the Saints left tackle to force his second fumble of the game. He made a similar play to end the first half, helping Dallas gain a late 2nd quarter field goal for a 17-3 halftime lead. Jay Ratliff snatched up this ball with six seconds left, capping a powerful defensive performance which went 60 minutes, a welcome advance over incomplete earlier ones.Notes:
-- Jason Garrett won the tendency game over Gregg Williams. Four early examples:
1. He hit New Orleans with an early bomb when they were playing with a single safety deep. Miles Austin abused rookie Malcolm Jenkins with a stop and go route, and Darren Sharper was way too slow to close on a well-thrown Romo pass.
2. Earlier in that drive, Dallas went to a Packers formation (an inverted diamond with two FBs and one I back. The Saints countered with a 3-3 front, expecting a pass. Dallas ran Felix Jones behind the two lead blockers for 11 yards.
3. Dallas was ready for a Saints corner blitz on its second TD drive. Austin ran a quick stop in front of the rotating Sharper and ran through an arm tackle for 26 yards.
4. The Cowboys had an answer for their short yardage bugaboos, running out of power I formation, where Jason Witten flexed into the tackle/guard gap and Marion Barber ran behind him and Deon Anderson for a touchdown and a later first down.
-- Anthony Spencer's hand usage continues to improve, and his sack totals are rising as a consequence. He sacked Brees on consecutive plays early in the 3rd to snuff out the Saints first attempt to counter the Cowboys 75 yard TD drive, which opened the 3rd quarter.
New Orleans had returned the kickoff 67 yards to the Dallas 36. On 3rd-and-10, Spencer blew past the Saints' left tackle and dropped Brees. The play was nullified by a penalty against Orlando Scandrick. Spencer simply sacked Brees on the next play, coming around the right end this time. The second sack kept the Saints out field goal range and led to a punt.
Spencer and Demarcus Ware both terrorized the Saints tackles, meaning the Cowboys could call fewer blitzes and keep extra players in coverage.
-- Dallas tried midget mini-wedges on kickoff returns tonight. Joe DeCamillis switched from using offensive linemen to using receivers, tight ends and fullbacks. Felix Jones had two long returns to the Saints 40.
-- Sean Payton will have to answer questions that he bailed on his running game this week. Reggie Bush ripped off a 29 yarder early, but the Cowboys held Pierre Thomas to 20 yards on six carries. The Saints ran ten times for 28 yards aside from Bush's big gainer.
-- I'm jumping Aaron's story to award a game ball to Wade Phillips. His defense held the Chargers to 20 points last week and held New Orleans 19 points under their season average. I wrote at the beginning of December that this team would go as far as the defense took it. They can go pretty far with more performances like tonight's.
-- Nick Folk raised his head early again. That's all I'll say or probably need to say about him.
-- In games like this you learn who your mates are. Who you want in your foxhole. I want Kevin Ogletree in mine. I want John Phillips in mine. Shoot, I'm making space for Bobby Carpenter, who played his heart out covering seam routes and crosses by the Saints' receivers.
On the other hand, we probably saw the beginning of the cycle. Ogletree gained more reps in the last three quarters. Miles Austin made money catches early and late. And Roy Williams played like a guy who is planning his Rose Bowl itinerary between snaps. He made two key drops, one which would have squeezed another two minutes out of the 4th quarter clock when the Cowboys were trying to maintain momentum. Kevin Ogletree's increases snaps should get Roy Willie's attention. If they don't, nothing will.
-- Another 100 rating game for the quarterback. Tony Romo posted a 104 tonight, following two 112s. He's playing moneyball this December and got a lot more company tonight.
-- The running balance is sliding towards 50/50. Marion Barber got 17 carries tonight and Felix Jones earned a career high 14. I would welcome continued increases in Jones' workload.
-- Victor Butler got the early down snaps at outside linebacker. He didn't embarrass himself.
-- Butler had lots of rookie company. John Phillips, Kevin Ogletree and David Buehler also contributed to the win. Buehler got some reps as a wedge blocker.
-- Who says Miles Austin isn't a big time receiver? His first catch went 49 yards for a touchdown. His last was a critical, winding 32 yard romp through the heart of New Orleans' secondary late in the 4th. He finished with 7 catches for 139 yards.
-- The Saints offense revved its engine, but does the team as a whole scare you? It has suspect pass blocking tackles and its defensive secondary is beatable.
-- Speaking of suspect tackle play, Flozell Adams continues his slow decline. Will Smith blew past him several times. Adams is willing to take flags to keep Tony Romo healthy, but he's not the same guy we saw dominate in '07. He no longer has the feet to take the corner away from good edge rushers. Dallas usually leaves him alone, but the coaches gave him lots of tight end and back help tonight.