If someone had told you before the game that the Dallas Cowboys would only score 13 points against the New Orleans Saints, you would have been sure that it would be a loss, and probably a badly embarrassing one at that. But the Cowboys defense had what was their best performance of the season, and really much, much longer than that, holding the high-powered Saints offense to just 10 points. And in a game that was so different from expectations in so many ways, it ended with three consecutive kneel downs, as the Saints could only look on helplessly. Just like we all expected, an old fashioned defensive slugfest.
Now the Cowboys are clearly in control of the NFC East at 7-5, and have just taken down one of the best teams in the league. Look out.
The Cowboys started the game red-hot, then had their struggles the rest of the way. But while the offense struggled, especially in the second half, the defense came up huge, nearly shutting the Saints out in a remarkable display. It would have been even more dominant a performance by the defense if they (particularly Randy Gregory) had avoided some rather stupid penalties. But they also had the biggest play of the game down the stretch to allow the Cowboys to take three consecutive knees to get the win, and along the way serve notice to the NFC that they are someone to be reckoned with.
No matter what the Saints served up on offense, the defense had an answer. The key, as Troy Aikman repeatedly commented, was that the pass rush continually got a big push up the middle, discombobulating Drew Brees and leading to one of his worst performances in a very long time. He only had 127 yards passing, with one touchdown and the interception that essentially ended the game.
Given what the Cowboys were facing, the first half was simply amazing. Despite Amari Cooper losing a fumble and Dak Prescott suffering four sacks, Dallas took a 13-0 lead into intermission. The defense was nearly impenetrable, only giving up three first downs and not allowing Drew Brees and company to convert a single third down. Their finest moment came after that Cooper fumble, which was recovered at the Cowboys’ 39 yard line. The Saints got a first and goal at the 7 yard line, but there the defense came up big, stopping New Orleans four times in a row, the last a run stuff on fourth down from the 2.
And despite the mistakes on offense, they looked like the clearly superior unit, amassing 229 yards and holding onto the ball for an amazing 21:49. They put together three long drives, including the 85 yard drive capped by a 16 yard screen pass to Ezekiel Elliott for a touchdown. And they got the second field goal of the game after starting that drive from their own 2 after the turnover on downs.
While they left points on the field, it was a far better start to the game than anyone could have predicted. The defense held the Saints to only 59 total yards in addition to stopping them on their one red zone trip. The secondary was breaking up passes, and while they only had one sack of Brees, the pressure from the pass rush, particularly up the middle, seemed to have Brees off balance and out of rhythm. Meanwhile, outside of nearly losing a fumble of his own, Dak Prescott looked much better than Brees in the first half, with a passer rating of 133.8. The blueprint for Dallas worked almost to perfection to start the game. They stopped the Saints offense, held the ball most of the half to keep that hard playing defense fresh, and put some points up on the board. It was almost stunning to see. But the running game was not what they wanted, as Elliott was held to only 39 rushing yards in the half.
New Orleans had deferred after winning the toss, and came out of halftime needing to get something going. They did put together a decent drive, aided by a facemask penalty on Randy Gregory, but it stalled out inside the red zone and they were held to only a field goal.
The Cowboys needed to answer, but another sack of Prescott gave them too much to overcome, and they were forced into only their second punt of the game.
Penalties, which had actually been in the Cowboys’ favor in the first half, played a big role in the Saints’ second possession of the second half, with an encroachment, a defensive pass interference, and a defensive holding sandwiched with an offensive holding (!) in there. Then, when the Cowboys had gotten off the field with another big Leighton Vander Esch stop, a roughing the punter call on Gregory kept them alive and moved the ball to the Dallas 33. That finally broke the dam for Brees as two plays later he hit Keith Kirkwood to make it a three point game. After playing so brilliantly, the defensive mistakes on the drive let New Orleans back into the game and restore some confidence for Brees, who had been uncharacteristically struggling to that point.
The Cowboys still carried a 13-10 margin into the fourth quarter, but only had one play before they had to punt it back after a holding call on Xavier Su’a-Filo set them back on the drive. Then, after the Saints got the punt back on their own 34, the Cowboys had a chance to take control back with a strip-sack fumble, but Gregory had another big penalty, being called for lining up in the neutral zone (a really close call in this case), giving the Saints the ball with third and inches. Alvin Kamara kept the drive alive.
This time, the defense came up big, with a little help from the officials missing a clear leading with the helmet call, and forced a punt. It almost was downed at the one inch line, but Alex Anzalone just touched the goal line to put the ball back out at the 20. Dak Prescott kept the drive alive with a gutsy scramble on third and 10, breaking tackles and diving across the line. And the drive was also kept alive by the fact the Saints had used all their challenges in the first half, as a first down catch by Cole Beasley was short when his knee touched. But without that challenge ability, Sean Payton had to watch the play stand. It all came for naught, though, as Prescott would get sacked for the seventh time in the game and lose the handle on the ball, turning it over to New Orleans at the Dallas 15 with just 2:35 left in the game.
It was just one more major challenge for the defense, and they answered in huge fashion, as often underused cornerback Jourdan Lewis came up with the first interception of the game, handing the ball back to the Cowboys at their 16 and now just 2:08 left.
It was far from a perfect game, and that included the officials who missed some obvious calls both ways. But they also had a major call in the Cowboys’ favor on a roughing the passer play (just after missing a facemask call earlier in the drive) on the play that ended in Prescott’s lost fumble. And in the end, Dallas came out on top, with one last bit of help on a pass interference drawn by Amari Cooper in the end zone with just 1:58 left in the game.
There were too many turnovers and loose balls for Dallas. Dak got beaten up. Zeke was held to just 76 yards on the ground. And still that defense held up and they got the win. It was ugly. And absolutely beautiful.
Cowboys edges at half:
1st downs: 14-3
bad news -1 in turnovers, 1-4 on sacks.
But what a damn half.