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The lesson learned from Cowboys win over Saints is for the entire league: The Dallas defense is for real

Who cares about being elite when you can be a winner?

New Orleans Saints v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

It still seems unreal. In a game that went about as far from what was expected as any in recent memory, the Dallas Cowboys throttled the New Orleans Saints 13-10. There are several things that could be learned from this game, like the toughness of Dak Prescott, the fact that Jason Garrett did a better job of coaching than Sean Payton, or just how dismal the state of officiating is in the NFL. But there is one thing that stands out above all, and it isn’t even close.

This Dallas defense is the real deal.

Forget the debate about whether the term “elite” should be used. Focus on the more important aspect - they are game-changers. That is not just a reference to how they almost completely shut down the hottest offense in the NFL. They threaten to upend what has become dogma for the league, namely that offense is all that matters, and defenses exist just to have the requisite 22 players on the field.

Suddenly, along with a few other playoff-bound teams like the Chicago Bears and the Los Angeles Chargers, the Cowboys are showing that the old idea that “defense wins championships” may not be so dead after all. They have assaulted the idea that offense has outstripped the defense with the help of heavily-tilted rules. They got right in the face of the concept that some quarterbacks are just unstoppable. They created some serious doubts about how offense-minded geniuses are taking over the NFL and changing the face of the game forever.

This is not just because of one game. It is something that has been building all season long in Dallas, where the defense has kept the team in every game. They have been crucial in the winning streak that is saving the Cowboys’ season. This was just the culmination, with everything really coming together when the team faced the biggest challenge of the year. The defense delivered in spectacular fashion. The Saints came into the game with some gaudy offensive production. They were averaging 37.2 points per game to lead the league, 416.6 yards per game (285.5 passing and 133.1 rushing), and were converting 47% of their third downs.

The Cowboys didn’t just limit that production. They devastated it. 10 points. 176 total yards, 111 through the air and 65 on the ground. Just 27% on third downs.

For most of this season, the Saints have been mentioned in the same breath as the Los Angeles Rams and the Kansas City Chiefs, using the same awestruck tone. It was a foregone conclusion that the first two were duking it out to meet the third in the Super Bowl. No one could really stop them, except when two of them met and put up simply ludicrous offensive numbers. Drew Brees was considered to be a finalist for league MVP already, and was thought to be the favorite by many. He was surrounded by potent offensive weapons like Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, and Mark Ingram. His offensive line has become one of the best in the league. Oh, and just for good measure, he had a defense supporting him that was in the top ten in most categories as well.

Conventional wisdom said that the only way to beat Brees and company was in a wild shootout like the one the Chiefs and Rams just conducted. No defense was seen as being able to do much more than slow things down a bit.

Well, the Cowboys danged near stopped them completely. Had it not been for a Cowboys turnover that set the Saints up with great field position, plus a missed offensive pass interference in the end zone, New Orleans might have not scored a touchdown at all. After all, when they got a first and goal at the Dallas seven-yard line in the second quarter, with a chance to cut the lead down to one score, the Cowboys gave up only five net yards in four plays.

The Dallas defense has its stars, like Demarcus Lawrence, Byron Jones, Jaylon Smith, and super-rook Leighton Vander Esch. But this was a complete and total team effort.

Contributions came from all over the defense. When that happens, then you also have to look to the coaches. And Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard looked very good, indeed.

More remarkably, the defense overcame some normally fatal things in the game, like losing the turnover battle, giving up far too many sacks to the other side, and some really bad penalties and missed calls, although that rather balanced itself out overall. They even deserve some credit for rattling Payton into some really questionable decisions that wound up coming back to haunt him as time ran down.

This was a game where the defense once again carried the team, while the offense pretty much was doing just enough to get the W. The play was outstanding at all three levels of the defense. It showed that the D is getting everything together at the best possible time. With only four games to go in the season, the Cowboys are in first place in the NFC East, no matter what happens between Philadelphia and Washington on Monday night. The most formidable team on their schedule has now been dealt a loss. It is trite, but Dallas does control their own destiny.

With this defense, that may be a far better one than any of us could have dreamed just four weeks, and four wins, ago.

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