Flash back to last year for a moment. The Cowboys fumbled their way to a 3-5 start and the season looked lost. But with the emergence of Amari Cooper, along with a stellar defense, the Cowboys managed to knock off the Eagles, Falcons, and Redskins in a row and improve to 6-5. However, it wasn’t saying much. The Eagles were 4-4 coming into that game, the Falcons sat at 4-5, and the Redskins had Colt McCoy making his first start of the season after Alex Smith’s injury.
Next up on the schedule: a home game against the high-flying New Orleans Saints, who were riding a red-hot Drew Brees to a 10-1 start with one of the NFL’s very best offenses. It was the first real test of the suddenly-streaking Cowboys, and few gave them a real chance. Yet in the end, Dallas pulled off the upset, and the momentum from such a huge victory powered them to the playoffs.
A lot has changed for both teams since then. For Dallas, they have a new offensive coordinator in Kellen Moore, and it’s resulted in their offense ranking third in the league in total yards and fourth in points per game. Dak Prescott has thrust his name into the MVP conversation with an impressive stat line that rivals that of Patrick Mahomes. Travis Frederick has returned to the field and anchored a resurgent offensive line.
Meanwhile, the Saints have seen their own share of changes. Sean Payton still commands the offense, but they rank 21st in total yards and 11th in points per game. New Orleans lost Mark Ingram in free agency, which has translated to an increased workload for Alvin Kamara while getting free agent acquisition Latavius Murray involved some. The defense has also regressed, as they rank 28th in yards allowed and 26th in points allowed per game.
Oh, and Drew Brees is also out. That’s right, the Saints’ star quarterback is out for roughly six weeks after tearing a ligament in the thumb of his throwing hand against the Rams in Week 2. Backup Teddy Bridgewater, once a rising star in his own right whose career was blown off course by a devastating injury, has taken over in place of the future Hall of Famer.
Through 1.5 games, Bridgewater has completed 63.2% of his passes for 342 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. However, he struggled to move the ball against the Rams and last week against the Seahawks, though it was in Seattle, the offense was slow to begin the game.
However, the Saints will be in their own stadium for the rematch against the Cowboys, who are riding high on a 3-0 start in which they’ve outscored opponents 97-44. Of course, the Superdome in New Orleans is a very tough environment to play in; the Saints are 13-3 at home the last two years, and they won their only home game of 2019 thus far in a nail-biter against the Texans. That game featured a game-winning field goal as time expired.
It’s not much of a surprise, then, that Dallas currently sits as a 2.5 point favorite over the Saints despite the homefield advantage. But that doesn’t erase the fact that, much like last year’s contest between these two, it’ll be the first legitimate test of this Cowboys team. While many were quick to declare the sky was falling when Brees went down, Bridgewater’s skill cannot be overlooked. He may not be as good as Brees, but very few quarterbacks are. In the very small sample size we’ve seen from Bridgewater this year, he looks like a lot like Dak did last year: safe, efficient, and athletic enough to exploit defenses but not a guy that will single-handedly win you a game.
And just like with Dak, Bridgewater doesn’t need to single-handedly win any games. The Saints have the third best offensive line right now, according to Pro Football Focus, and two All Pro’s in Kamara and Michael Thomas, as well as Murray, Ted Ginn, and Jared Cook. Bridgewater has plenty of weapons to work with, so he can’t be counted out against a defense that ranks 15th in total yards allowed through three games against bad offenses.
The other end of the matchup is where things tip significantly in Dallas’ favor. The Saints are giving up a lot of yards and points to opposing offenses, none of which have been anywhere near as efficient as the Cowboys have been. In fact, the Cowboys lead the league in offensive DVOA at +54.1%. Mahomes and the Chiefs are in second at +46.1%, for comparative purposes. Unless the defense can really get things going suddenly, it should be another big day for Kellen Moore and the gang.
If the Saints have one secret weapon, though, it’s Deonte Harris. An undrafted rookie out of Division II Assumption College, Harris is the return specialist for the Saints and is quickly making a name for himself. On kickoffs, he’s returned four of them for 96 yards. Similarly, he has nine punt returns for 107 yards and a touchdown.
The Cowboys’ special teams unit will need to be on top of their game against Harris. He’s far from the only player that can hurt Dallas, though, and the depth of this Saints team is exactly why they can’t be overlooked despite the absence of Brees.