The Dallas Cowboys were far from perfect or overwhelming, but they got a crucial 27-17 win over the New Orleans Saints in a game that was ugly at times, but where Dallas found just enough to not have another embarrassing defeat at the hands of an undermanned team.
This was a big game for both teams. The Cowboys were looking to end a two-game winning streak and make sure they kept some space between them and the rest of the NFC East. The Saints were mired in their even worse four-game slump, and needed to get a win to keep slim hopes of getting a wild card spot in the playoffs. Only one team could get what they needed, and fortunately, it would turn out to be Dallas. It was in many ways an unsatisfying performance for the Cowboys, especially on offense, but the defense found its takeaway magic and that would turn out to be the difference.
Things got off to a slow start. The teams exchanged punts as neither offense could get much going, including a failed fourth-down conversion attempt by Dallas. Part of that was DeMarcus Lawrence raising havoc in his first game back from IR, particularly on the first series of the game. Then on the Cowboys third possession, the offense finally got going. It started with another returning player for Dallas, a 41-yard completion to Amari Cooper. A few plays later CeeDee Lamb added 33 yards on what was technically a running play after a backwards pass. That got the Cowboys to the New Orleans one-yard line, and Dak Prescott promptly found Michael Gallup for what has become something of a trademark play for him, the toe-tapper.
Michael Gallup is that dude. Sheesh. pic.twitter.com/pAEAeQVJEc— Joey Hayden (@_joeyhayden) December 3, 2021
That gave the Cowboys a seven-point lead with less than a minute to go in the first quarter.
Unfortunately, the Saints promptly answered. Taysom Hill would be a real issue for Dallas, whether on designed runs, scrambling for yards when he couldn’t find a receiver, or completing passes down field. He would cap the drive with a 24-yard touchdown to Lil’ Jordan Humphrey.
The Cowboys struggled to run the ball throughout the first half, outside the technical running play to Lamb. Neither Ezekiel Elliott or Tony Pollard could find any room against the strong run defense of New Orleans. The next series for Dallas would start out well, but stall. Greg Zuerlein would come on for a 55-yard field goal attempt, and nail it to get a three-point lead for the Cowboys.
The stats were pretty even up to this point, and it looked like the Saints would at least answer, or even take a lead. A perfect tight end screen call by Sean Payton exploited the Dallas defense and had them 26 yards away from the end zone. But Jayron Kearse wanted to get in on the acrobatic, toe-dragging action, and got the ball back for the Cowboys.
Jayron Kearse >— Blogging The Boys (@BloggingTheBoys) December 3, 2021
(via @NFL) pic.twitter.com/6STtyQsFVI
That set Dallas up at their own five-yard line, with 2:19 left in the first half and all three of their timeouts in hand. They would drive to the New Orleans 17, but with only four seconds left, were forced to settle for a short Zuerlein field goal that had the Cowboys up 13-7 at halftime.
Dallas had the ball coming out of the half, but were unable to do anything. The Saints looked like they were going to drive all the way down the field with heavy use of Hill as a runner. The Cowboys defense stiffened and New Orleans had to call on Brett Maher again after he had missed a 56-yard attempt on their first drive. He nailed this one, and it was back to a three-point game.
The running game woes continued for Dallas on the next series. Kellen Moore called back-to-back handoffs, which left them needing a third-down conversion that failed. The next Saints possession saw the first time the referees made a questionable call, but this one went in the Cowboys’ favor as they called a blindside block that certainly was not apparent on replay, although there was a lot of helmet-to-helmet contact initiated by the Saints player. That led to a New Orleans punt that had the ball at the Dallas 29.
And then the running game finally came alive for the Cowboys on the fourth play of the drive. Tony Pollard found a hole on the left side and raced 58 yards all the way to the end zone. The longest run of the year for Dallas pushed it to the first two-score lead of the game at 20-10.
To respond, the Saints leaned on Hill’s legs again, which may have been partly because he hurt a finger on his throwing hand during the first half when he banged it into Dorance Armstrong’s, well, strong arm. But it worked, as he had a 23-yard run with a hurdle followed by two more to get a first down at the Dallas 34. Fortunately for the Cowboys, Payton went with a pass play on third and two, and Micah Parsons added to his sack total with one for a 13-yard loss to knock New Orleans out of field goal range.
The resulting punt left the Cowboys at their own four-yard line. A 25-yard pass to Lamb (which may have been incomplete if not for getting a quick snap off before the Saints could decide to challenge) was followed by the first good run for Elliott, albeit just for ten yards. The drive would stall at the New Orleans 44. The punt gave them the ball at their own 13 with over ten minutes left in the game, and needing a score to have a chance at the end.
The defense would stand strong, forcing a three and out. Lamb would return the punt to the Dallas 32. But three plays later, Prescott would make a big mistake and throw an interception to Marshon Lattimore. That gave the Saints the ball on the Dallas 46. They kept the drive alive on a fourth and eight conversion. But the turnover gods are fickle, and a tipped ball interception by Damontae Kazee snuffed that drive out, and time was beginning to grow short with 6:24 left in the game. Prescott flirted with another interception when he threw under heavy pressure. They wound once again go three and out, as the offense continued to sputter. Once again, New Orleans had the ball, now at their own 24, and Dallas had only used a bit over a minute of play clock.
It was time for someone to make a play on the defense, and who better than Trevon Diggs, who nabbed his ninth pick of the season. Now the Cowboys had the ball on their own 41, and under five minutes left in the game. They just needed to burn clock without surrendering more than one score. And on a night when the offense was just not sustaining much, it was very appropriate that Carlos Watkins would jump up and grab a pick-six, the fourth interception of the game, to put it away. The 27-10 lead with only 2:52 was too much to overcome for New Orleans, although they certainly tried with a weaving 70-yard touchdown catch by Deonte Harris to pull them back within 10. It was a bad play by the defense after some real brilliance in the previous few series. Still, the Saints were out of time outs, and the ensuing onside kick attempt failed. With one decent run by Ezekiel Elliott, they were able to run out the clock and take home the win.
It was a game where the Saints defense was very good against the run and at times brought fierce pressure on the quarterback. Dallas’ offense was just not very good throughout, and it was the defense that may have made the difference, combined with a limited attack from their opponent. At times, Hill was all they really had. But we’ll take any kind of win. Now the Washington Football team is up next, and if Dallas can pull off a win over them, they will be very close to locking up the division.
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