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The win was shocking, but it’s how the Cowboys beat the Saints that’s so impressive

The details of how the Cowboys pulled off their 13-10 win over the Saints adds to the overall astonishment of the win.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Less than a month ago, the Cowboys were buried at 3-5, coming off a 28-14 spanking by the Titans. In a blink, th Cowboys are 7-5, in sole possession of the NFC East, and just knocked off the favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. This may be the same roster that limped out of AT&T Stadium after that Titans loss but it’s certainly a different team now.

Dallas has won four straight games, three of which came in a twelve-day span. Beating the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles at The Linc was satisfying as always. Exorcising last season’s demons on the road in Atlanta was savory as was the redeeming win over the Washington Redskins on Thanksgiving. Nothing has been more gratifying than this signature win the Cowboys just notched against the New Orleans Saints because it could be argued as one of the best wins of Jason Garrett’s coaching career.

FiveThirtyEight only gave the Cowboys a 36% chance to win but we know the “any given Sunday” phrase is still very true even if it is a bit cliche. NFL teams are just too close in talent level that anyone can be beat if they don’t bring their best on game day. That’s what is so shocking about this particular Cowboys victory. It’s not the ‘upset’ itself that is impressive, it’s how the Cowboys pulled it off. The Saints weren’t just on your normal ten-game streak, they were dominating their opponents. In their previous four games, the Saints had outscored their opponents by an average of 44-18. They also out-gained their opponents in yards 464-332 This Saints team was also responsible for handing another NFC heavyweight Rams team their first loss.

Most conversations between Cowboys fans were mainly hoping that Dallas wouldn’t get blown out. It is safe to say that the prevailing opinion prior to kickoff was that it would likely take a perfect game for the Cowboys to win but if they were competitive, it could be a moral victory of sorts. The reality is that moral victories don’t actually exist and this Cowboys team wanted very badly to beat the best team in football. Even if we just saw the final score of 13-10 Dallas, it tells us that something wasn’t right here. The Saints only scored 10 points?! Did Drew Brees play? Did Michael Thomas or Alvin Kamara sit out? What happened?

The Cowboys thoroughly roughed up the Saints from the minute the first whistle blew. That’s what happened. They forced New Orleans to play their style which slowed them way down. The Cowboys had possession to start the game. That opening possession was a 12-play drive that shaved five-and-a-half minutes off the clock, but ended in a field goal after Dak Prescott was sacked on third down at the Saints five-yard line. That’s not exactly ideal when playing an offensive juggernaut that has scored at the pace we previously mentioned. However, when you have a defense that forced the Saints offense off the field, 35 seconds into their first possession, threepoints isn’t so bad.

This continued for the entire first half as the Cowboys held the ball for 21:49 compared to only 8:11 for New Orleans. Each team had five possessions in the first-half but the Cowboys’ simply dominated the Saints in drive production by a wide margin:

DAL First Half Drives Result # of Plays Time Yds./Dr.
1 FG 12 5:36 67
2 Punt 3 2:15 -5
3 TD 8 4:10 85
4 FUM 2 0:39 6
5 FG 16 9:09 70
Avg. Drive 2.6 Pts. 8 4:30 45
NO First Half Drives Result # of Plays Avg. Time Yds./Dr.
1 Punt 3 0:35 0
2 Punt 2 1:27 4
3 Punt 5 2:25 17
4 Downs 7 2:53 38
5 Half 3 0:51 0
Avg. 0 Pts./Dr. 4 2:00 12

It’s natural for us to analyze what the Cowboys offense didn’t do as opposed to what they were successful doing. When you think about what could have been in the red zone, that’s really the only thing in support of this being labeled a close game. In actuality, the Cowboys defense never surrendered the lead. Dak Prescott’s mistakes were an issue but he still managed to out-duel a future Hall-of-Fame quarterback. He completed 86% of his passes for 248 yards and a 115.5 passer rating. Most of the time, he was under duress and was sacked seven times, he didn’t walk into all seven, either. If I were Dak, I would start by buying Jourdan Lewis a nice steak dinner for bailing him out on the fumble with his game-sealing interception.

The Cowboys offense will kick themselves for not doing more in the second half but they still managed to move the ball, which helped the defense stay dominant. The Cowboys offense still ran more plays and owned time of possession despite the mistakes. It’s called complementary football and it works:

DAL 2nd Half Drives Result # of Plays Time Yds./Dr.
1 Punt 6 4:13 11
2 Punt 3 2:03 7
3 FUM 14 6:40 65
4 End 4 2:08 11
Avg. 0 Pts/Dr. 8 4:30 24
NO 2nd Half Drives Result # of Plays Time Yds./Dr.
1 FG 10 5:00 60
2 TD 10 4:39 88
3 Punt 7 4:50 24
4 INT 2 0:27 5
Avg. 2.5 Pts/Dr 7 3:54 44

The only success the Saints offense found were aided by penalties on the Cowboys. New Orleans was spotted 15 yards on their field-goal drive by a facemask call on Randy Gregory. There would be four more favorable flags thrown on the Saints’ lone touchdown drive. We’re certainly hearing quite a bit about the officiating from the loser’s side of this game but they can join the other 31 clubs in line each week to complain about calls. The officiating was terrible but for every favorable spot for Dallas, there’s a missed PI or personal foul that could be argued against New Orleans. It happens every week in the NFL and that’s not going to change any time soon. Maybe next time, Sean Payton may keep one of those red flags sheathed for a rainy day.

The devil is in the details and those details are drive stats. It shows that the Cowboys were dictating this game from start to finish. It was a phenomenal defensive effort in a game where the scale tips heavily to offense. The Dallas defense gave up 10 points to a Saints team that has averaged at least 25 per game since 2007. The Cowboys held New Orleans to 176 total yards, that’s their worst output in the Drew Brees and Sean Payton-era. Simply put, the Cowboys defense, and offense, were just too physical for the Saints.

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