Saints win over Cowboys one of the most significant under Sean Payton
NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Saints’ 12-10 victory against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night was one of the most significant victories of the Sean Payton era.
It wasn’t just that the game had as much of a playoff feel as a game on the penultimate day of September can have as thousands of Cowboys fans invaded the Saints fans space inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
It wasn’t just that the Saints improved to 2-0 in full games without Drew Brees, although that was part of it.
It was primarily that New Orleans won in ways that Payton teams don’t generally win.
It was the first time under Payton and the first time since 1998 that the Saints have won a game without scoring a touchdown.
They won with as good a defensive performance as a Payton team has had. Dallas had scored 30-plus points and gained 400-plus yards in winning each of its first three games.
The Saints allowed just one touchdown, shut out the Cowboys for the final 1½ quarters, allowed just 257 yards and took the ball away three times.
Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen was outstanding. He had his defense well prepared against an offense that, despite its gaudy numbers, still has limitations.
The sudden return of defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins from January Achilles surgery had to be inspiring and the play of linebacker Demario Davis was once again inspired.
Safety Vonn Bell had two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble a week after returning fumble 33 yards for a touchdown in a 33-27 victory at Seattle.
The Cowboys had compiled their statistics against the Giants, Redskins and Dolphins, so they hadn’t been challenged significantly.
Dak Prescott is still limited in the passing game, relying primarily on underneath routes even though he entered the game with remarkable third-quarter stats, including 22 completions in 22 attempts in that period.
Prescott remained perfect in the third quarter as he went 6 for 6 in orchestrating the game’s only touchdown drive on Dallas’ only third-quarter possession, but the Cowboys’ offensive success was clearly tied to the effectiveness of Ezekiel Elliott, one of the premiere running backs in the NFL, who like Prescott, has the advantage of operating behind one of the premiere offensive lines in the NFL.
Elliott, who quickly put his preseason holdout behind him and rushed for 100-plus yards each of the last two weeks, got 18 carries and managed just 35 yards, the second-lowest yards-per-carry average (1.9) in his career.
Just as importantly the Saints held the ball for 36 minutes and four seconds.
The special teams didn’t produce a touchdown like it did a week earlier, but Wil Lutz provided all the scoring by making all four of his field-goal attempts and Thomas Morstead was Thomas Morstead, contributing to another field-position win.
The offense, much like it did in a 13-10 loss at Dallas last December, struggled all night with the Cowboys defense, but still contributed to a second consecutive victory born of complementary football.
The offense had just one turnover – a pass Ted Ginn Jr. could have caught that bounced off his hands and into the hands of Cowboys cornerback Chidobe Awuzkie – allowing for a plus-2 in turnover margin.
The offensive line was dreadful for much of the night, but played its best on New Orleans’ final possession, which began at the Saints 38 (and 5:22 remaining) and ended with a punt after a third-down sack of Teddy Bridgewater took them out of field-goal range. But along the way Dallas used all three of its timeouts and Morstead’s punt had the Cowboys starting at their 14 with 1:39 left.
A 32-yard completion on third-and-20 gave the Cowboys a shot at a Hail Mary from their 48 on the final playoff the game, but Marcus Williams’ interception ended it.
Bridgewater wasn’t great but he was good enough – overcoming five sacks to complete 23 of 30 for 193 yards. He was indecisive at times and wasn’t Brees-like near the goal line at the end of the first half when an excellent touchdown opportunity turned into a 19-yard field goal.
Alvin Kamara didn’t have the explosive plays that he had a week earlier, but he still had 69 rushing yards and 20 rushing yards, and Michael Thomas was more productive than a week ago, finishing with nine catches on nine targets for 95 yards.
But this game belonged to the defense.
This game was won the way playoff games sometimes have to be won, especially outdoors on the road with defense, superior field position, toughness and an advantage in turnovers.
The Saints didn’t win this game because their head coach is an outstanding offensive mind, which he is, or because they have the NFL’s all-time leading passer, which they didn’t.
They won it because they’re one of the elite organizations in the NFL, because they have a mature head coach with a well-rounded staff and because they have a complete team that can win in whatever way circumstances require.
The loss of Brees to thumb surgery for an estimated six weeks figured to jeopardize the Saints standing atop the NFC South, especially with this brave new world beginning with games against Seattle and Dallas.
Now that the Saints (3-1) have gotten past these two obstacles with two victories, the road without Brees seems easier to navigate.
But suddenly the NFC South seems a bit more challenging as Carolina is 2-2 after consecutive wins with Kyle Allen as its new quarterback and Tampa Bay embarrassed the Rams, 55-40, on Sunday in Los Angeles to reach 2-2.
The Buccaneers come to the Superdome next Sunday looking like a much better team than they did after losing to the Giants a week earlier.
But they’ll be facing a team that looks like a much better team than it did when Brees was injured two weeks ago.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…