Preview: New Orleans Saints (13-0) vs Dallas Cowboys (8-5)
By Brian Allee-Walsh
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (13-0) VS. DALLAS COWBOYS (8-5) KICKOFF: 7:20 p.m. Saturday, Louisiana Superdome (70,000 capacity).
TV: NFL Network, WGNO-ABC 26, Cox Channel 11, Charter Channel 7.
RADIO: WWL 870-AM and sister station 105.3-FM, and WFNO 830-AM (Spanish).
AT STAKE: The Saints can clinch homefield advantage in the NFC with a win or tie and a loss by the Minnesota Vikings (11-2) at Carolina at 7:20 p.m. Sunday.
NEXT GAME: The Saints host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-12) at noon Dec. 27 at the Superdome.
NEW ORLEANS - This “Saturday Night Special’’ has the potential of delivering a 'shot heard ’round the NFL world'.
Why? Because the primetime presentation on the NFL Network features two compelling franchises with immense drawing power - a potential first-time league champion in the high octane and undefeated New Orleans Saints and Jerry Jones’ iconic, highfalutin Dallas Cowboys who fans seem to love or hate with equal passion.
In addition, these crazed football neighbors don’t like each other. Anybody who says differently is flat out lying.
This spirited border war kicks off at 7:20 p.m. Saturday at the Superdome.
The former ‘Aints are favored by 7 to extend their franchise-best record to 14-0 and keep the “tall hat, no cattle’’ Cowboys swooning in December. To which some of the ‘Boys say: “Don’t Bet on It.’’
“It’s a good football team we’re going against,’’ Dallas quarterback Tony Romo said. “But we’re not walking in there thinking is their homecoming, either.’’
“Might as well crown them, right?’’ Cowboys’ wide receiver Roy Williams said sarcastically. “They’re undefeated. It’s December. We don’t have a chance.’’
If the Cowboys play their cards right, they should have more than a chance, according to Williams.
“If we pack our bags and show up in New Orleans on Saturday night, we should be victorious,’’ he predicted.
Now keep in mind, the Cowboys of yesteryear have been there, done that, winning a handful of Super Bowl titles, the most recent at the end of the 1995 season. Since then, they have fallen on hard times, ridden hard and hung up wet after losing their last five playoff games.
Translation: None of the current Cowboys has won a playoff game wearing Silver and Blue threads. In fact, word out of Dallas is if Coach Wade Phillips doesn’t win a playoff game, he’ll be out of a job at season’s end, the steel-toed boot coming from an owner whose patience has grown increasingly thin after opening the doors to a $1.15 billion state-of-the-art stadium five months ago in Arlington, Texas.
Phillips’ team has to reach the postseason first. At the moment, Dallas is in the hunt for a wildcard berth, one game back of the NFC East-leading Philadelphia Eagles with remaining road games against New Orleans (13-0) and Washington (4-9) and the regular-season finale at Cowboys Stadium against the Eagles (9-4).
“Usually when people say you can’t do something, people bow up and have a lot of pride,’’ said Phillips, son of the legendary O.A. “Bum’’ Phillips, the former Saints head coach from 1981 through 12 games of the 1985 season before turning the reins over to Wade for the final four games.
“We have confidence in our football team. We’re not going to cower down to these guys. We think we can win. Every game we’ve been in so far, we thought we could win. I believe we feel the same way going into this one.’’
The playoff-bound Saints share a similar feeling, though they take their cue from their politically correct head coach, Sean Payton, who’d rather his players do their talking on the field.
Players remember all too well the backlash from a comment made by Jeff Charleston to a reporter prior to their season-opener against Detroit, when the third-year defensive end innocently referred to Lions’ rookie QB Matthew Stafford as “FRESH MEAT.’’ The next day, those words screamed out on the front page of the sports section in The Times-Picayune, much to Payton’s dismay.
That slip of the tongue by Charleston still resonates in the Saints’ locker room.
“We have a lot to play for and they have a lot to play for,’’ team spokesman/quarterback Drew Brees said. “You wouldn’t want it any other way. We’re going to get their best game and they’re going to get our best game.
“That’s great for us, great for them and great for everybody watching.’’
It should make for great theater.
NEW ORLEANS: OUT -- CB Jabari Greer (groin). QUESTIONABLE -- DT Sedrick Ellis (knee), LB Scott Fujita (knee), CB Tracy Porter (knee), TE Jeremy Shockey (toe). Ellis did not practice all week. PROBABLE -- WR Lance Moore (knee/hamstring), RB Mike Bell (knee). DALLAS: QUESTIONABLE – WLB DeMarcus Ware (neck/wrist), S Ken Hamlin (ankle). PROBABLE – FB Deon Anderson (knee) did not practice Friday because of an undisclosed illness. Practice reports out of Dallas were conflicting with regard to Ware. On the Cowboys’ injury report, he did not practice Thursday, although teammates said he worked out on the sideline and in walk throughs.
5 THINGS TO WATCH 4
(1) BE WARY OF WARE: It appears the Cowboys will make a game time decision on the availability of WLB DeMarcus Ware, who is officially listed as questionable with a strained neck. His presence on the field could provide an emotional lift for the Cowboys, not to mention what he does for their pass rush. Ware leads the Cowboys in sacks with nine and promises to be a handful wherever he lines up. “We’re definitely not going to rule him out; we’re preparing to try to keep him under control,’’ Saints LT Jermon Bushrod said.
(2) GOOD ROMO: Since throwing an interception early in the fourth quarter of the Cowboys’ 7-6 victory against Washington in Week 11, QB Tony Romo has not thrown an INT in his last 122 passes. Since that pick, he has compiled a stellar 116.5 passer rating, completing 85 of 122 for 1,011 yards and eight touchdowns. Overall, he has thrown 22 TD passes and seven interceptions and has a 97.4 rating. He faces the NFL’s No. 1 defense in terms of interceptions with 24, led by veteran FS Darren Sharper, who has returned three of his team-high eight INTs for touchdowns.
(3) DOME-INATION: Saints QB Drew Brees has been spectacular in six games played at the Superdome (all wins), posting a lights-out 131.0 passer rating. He has completed 136 of 187 passes (72.7 percent) for 1,926 yards, with 18 touchdowns and only three interceptions in the friendly confines of the Poydras Street Palace. By comparison, he has a 98.1 passer rating on the road, completing 166 of 245 passes for 1,906 yards, with 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
(4) STRENGTH VS. STRENGTH: The Saints have scored a franchise-best 466 points through 13 games, the only NFL team to exceed 400 points this season, including the Indianapolis Colts who have scored 394 points in 14 games. The Saints are averaging a league-best 35.8 PPG. On the flip side, the Cowboys have yielded 233 points, or 17.9 PPG, tied for sixth fewest in the NFL through 13 games. Only twice have the Cowboys allowed more than 21 points in a game, twice to the New York Giants and both games ended in losses (33-31, 31-24).
(5) START FAST: The Saints have made a living off finishing strong this season, making good on their offseason vow. They even had Super Bowl XLIV T-shirts printed with the inscription “Finish Strong.’’ Perhaps, they should have had designed a second T-shirt with the inscription “Start Fast.’’ Consider: In the first five games, or the first 300 minutes of the season, they never trailed. N-E-V-E-R. In the last eight games, they have not led at the end of the first quarter, trailing in six games and tied in two others. It could be more of the same Saturday night. The Cowboys have outscored their opposition 43-27 in the first quarter.
If the Saints beat Dallas, they will join the ’09 Colts, ’07 New England Patriots and the ’72 Miami Dolphins as the only teams in NFL history to start 14-0.
Dallas QB Tony Romo has four quality receivers to choose from in TE Jason Witten (77 catches, 793 yards, 1 TD), WR Austin Miles (58-999-10), WR Roy Williams (36-578-6) and WR Patrick Crayton (31-482-4). Both Miles and Witten are making strong cases for a trip to the Pro Bowl. Austin is among the league leaders when it comes to stretching the field, averaging 17.2 yards per catch. Crayton also has returned two punts for touchdowns, including one for 82 yards against Seattle in Week 8.
BY THE NUMBERS
Each team appears to lay claim to its own “3-headed Monster’’ backfield. The Cowboys’ top three running backs are Marion “The Beast’’ Barber (716-4), Felix Jones (478-2) and Tashard Choice (344-3), who have combined for 1,538 yards rushing and nine touchdowns. The Saints top three running backs are Pierre Thomas (713-5), Mike Bell (598-4) and Reggie Bush (310-5) who have combined for 1,621 yards and 14 touchdowns. Bush (39 catches, 281 yards, 3 TDs) and Thomas (34-252-2) also have contributed mightily in the passing game, combining on 73 catches for 533 yards and five scores.
HE SAID IT
“This is a two-round fight, and this is the first round, in my eyes. I don’t know about anybody else, but I think we’re going to see this team in the playoffs down the road.’’ -- Cowboys WR Roy Williams.
SAINTS 38, COWBOYS 34
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