NFL Preview - New Orleans (7-3) at Dallas (3-7)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - It took two very rough months and a major shakeup in leadership, but the Dallas Cowboys are finally beginning to play like the feared contender they were envisioned to be at the outset of this 2010 campaign. The New Orleans Saints, meanwhile, appear to have regained the form that earned them a Super Bowl title a season ago.
In a clash of 2009 division winners, the high-powered Saints will attempt to run their win streak to four straight games when the defending world champions storm into Cowboys Stadium this Thursday for a Thanksgiving Day tussle with a revitalized Dallas team that will be aiming for a third straight victory under new head coach Jason Garrett.
Although a shocking 1-7 start that triggered the dismissal of Wade Phillips has practically taken the Cowboys out of the mix for a playoff berth, they've quickly morphed into a dangerous spoiler with Garrett now in charge. Dallas has won both of its games under the direction of the elevated ex-Phillips assistant, following up an surprising 33-20 road ousting of the previously- surging New York Giants in Garrett's Week 10 debut with last Sunday's 35-19 home triumph over Detroit.
The Cowboys trailed the Lions by a 12-7 count early in the third quarter before ripping off 28 second-half points to forge ahead. Rookie cornerback Bryan McCann ignited the comeback with a tide-turning 97-yard punt return, while Jon Kitna accounted for four touchdowns (three passing, one rushing) in the journeyman quarterback's second straight outstanding performance under center.
Kitna, forced into signal-calling duties after Pro Bowl triggerman Tony Romo fractured his collarbone in an Oct. 25 loss to the Giants, seems to have benefited the most from Garrett's promotion. The 38-year-old threw for 327 yards and three scores in the previous week's win over New York, and completed a sharp 18-for-24 passes without a turnover to help push Dallas past his former Detroit mates.
Garrett's biggest test of his young coaching tenure could come this week, as the Saints have gotten on quite a roll of their own following a somewhat sluggish 4-3 beginning. New Orleans has won three in a row since, including a signature 20-10 verdict over a high-caliber Pittsburgh club back in Week 8, to boost its prospects for a return trip to the postseason.
An offense that was among the NFL's most diverse and potent attacks during last year's championship run has kicked into high gear over the course of the current tear. The Saints piled up a season-best 494 total yards in last week's 35-19 besting of Seattle, with standout quarterback Drew Brees leading the outburst with a 382-yard, four-touchdown display through the air.
New Orleans managed to inflict all that damage upon the Seahawks despite missing three key contributors in running backs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas and tight end Jeremy Shockey. At least one of those players appears set to return on Thursday, as Bush has practiced without limitations this week and pronounced himself fully recovered from a fractured fibula that's kept the versatile former University of Southern California star out since the season's second game.
The Saints are riding their longest regular-season win streak since prevailing in the first 13 contests of the 2009 schedule. That run was stopped with a 24-17 loss to the Cowboys in the Louisiana Superdome last December, in which Romo threw for 312 yards and the Dallas defense forced three turnovers.
The Cowboys will be out to extend another impressive streak when they take the field for their annual Turkey Day home game. Dallas has won four straight Thanksgiving tilts by a combined 130-29 margin, with each of those victories coming by at least 17 points.
Dallas has won 15 of its 23 all-time meetings with New Orleans and snapped a five-game losing streak in the series with a 24-17 victory at the Superdome during Week 15 of last season, a game in which the Saints came in with a perfect 13-0 record. New Orleans had lost in each of its first nine lifetime visits to Dallas prior to a 27-13 triumph at Texas Stadium in 2004, and dealt the Cowboys a humbling 42-17 defeat in the Lone Star State two years later.
Saints head coach Sean Payton, an assistant under Bill Parcells with Dallas from 2003 to 2005, is 1-1 against his one-time employer as a head coach. Garrett will be opposing both Payton and New Orleans for the first time as a head man.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
As Brees (2969 passing yards, 22 TD, 14 INT) goes, so goes the New Orleans offense, and that adage has certainly rang true during the team's present surge. The deadly-accurate quarterback has averaged nearly 315 passing yards and connected on a sizzling 69 percent of his attempts over the last three wins, while delivering eight touchdown strikes to bring his NFC-leading total to 22. The All-Pro field general is aided by a wealth of quality options in directing the NFL's fourth-ranked aerial assault (296.9 ypg), as seven Saints players have garnered 23 receptions or more this year, and another would be added to that list if Bush (9 receptions, 1 TD) -- one of the game's better receiving backs -- is indeed ready to go. Brees' unquestioned go-to guy remains physical wideout Marques Colston (62 receptions, 705 yards, 4 TD), who showed off his tremendous skills with an eight-catch, 113-yard, two-touchdown effort against the Seahawks last week. Shockey (31 receptions, 3 TD) is questionable to make it back from a rib injury sustained in a Week 9 rout of Carolina, but promising rookie Jimmy Graham (13 receptions, 1 TD) stepped in ably by registering personal highs of five grabs and 72 receiving yards last Sunday. With 2009 leading rusher Thomas still bothered by a troublesome ankle sprain, expect powerful rookie Chris Ivory (481 rushing yards, 1 TD) to handle the bulk of the carries on Thursday and Bush to be sprinkled in. Ivory ran for 99 yards on 23 attempts and scored his first career touchdown in the Seattle game.
Brees could be in line for a field day when he takes on an underachieving Dallas stop unit that's 30th in the NFL in pass efficiency defense and has surrendered a troubling 22 touchdowns through the air, the second-highest total in the league. Cornerbacks Terence Newman (43 tackles, 2 INT) and Mike Jenkins (38 tackles, 1 INT, 6 PD) each went to the Pro Bowl a year ago, but both have been plagued by injuries and inconsistency throughout this season, and safeties Gerald Sensabaugh (46 tackles, 1 INT) and Alan Ball (34 tackles, 1 INT) have allowed their share of big plays as well. One member who has lived up to his reputation is outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (41 tackles), who once again stands among the league leaders with 8 1/2 sacks and had a monster game in last December's win over the Saints, taking down Brees twice and forcing a pair of fumbles. The Cowboys haven't been anything special against the run either, ranking 22nd overall in that department (117.3 ypg), but did manage to limit Detroit's anemic ground game to 75 yards last week. Veteran inside linebacker Keith Brooking (73 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) spearheaded the charge by making a team-best 11 tackles.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Even with Romo having been shelved over the past month, a Dallas offense that's fifth in the NFL in passing yards (282.8 ypg) remains a crew that commands respect due to its vast array of weapons. Kitna (1223 passing yards, 10 TD, 7 INT) has been a more than capable substitute over the past two weeks, while the one-two punch of Miles Austin (49 receptions, 732 yards, 5 TD) and dazzling rookie Dez Bryant (44 receptions, 6 TD) could be on the verge of becoming the best wide receiver duo in the league. The outstanding pair teamed up for three touchdown grabs against the Lions last week, and Bryant has found the end zone in three consecutive contests. Six-time Pro Bowler Jason Witten (50 receptions, 3 TD) is as good as they come at the tight end position as well. The Cowboys haven't been very effective or persistent running the football, having attempted the second-fewest rush attempts while averaging a meager 83.9 yards per game on the ground (29th overall), but did produce a respectable 134 yards in last Sunday's triumph. Speedster Felix Jones (404 rushing yards, 30 receptions, 1 TD) is the team's best threat out of the backfield, with bruiser Marion Barber (294 rushing yards, 2 TD, 9 receptions) utilized primarily in a short-yardage role or to close out games.
While New Orleans is more renowned for its quick-strike offense, they've been quite sound on the other side of the ball for the majority of this season. The Saints have yielded the fourth-fewest points in the league (17.0 ppg) and are second overall against the pass (186.3 ypg), although Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck did amass 366 yards on the group last week with the Seahawks in comeback mode for much of the afternoon. New Orleans will be entering Thursday's showdown with some injury concerns, however. Playmaking free safety Darren Sharper is likely to miss a second straight game with a strained hamstring, while valued backup Malcolm Jenkins (45 tackles, 1 sack, 8 PD) status is iffy due to a neck stinger. Tackle Sedrick Ellis (24 tackles, 4 sacks), the team's leader in sacks, is also considered questionable after hurting his quadriceps against the Seahawks, and that would be a significant loss to a defense that's only gotten to the quarterback 19 times all year. Middle linebacker and 2009 Pro Bowler Jonathan Vilma (62 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and hard-hitting strong safety Roman Harper (55 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) are the top run stoppers of a contingent that held Seattle to a pedestrian 58 rushing yards last Sunday.
With two teams that prefer to air it out, the spotlight falls on the terrific collection of receivers that both possess. Bryant has raised his play to another level in the games in which Kitna has started, and the dynamic rookie joins Austin and Witten in the must-use category among Dallas players. Colston should also be a lock in weekly lineups, though he's the only New Orleans pass-catcher under that distinction due to the team's overall depth. Brees is an obvious play against a Dallas secondary that's been torn up by the opposition plenty of times this year, but Kitna isn't a recommended choice despite his good recent numbers. As for the running backs, Bush should remain on benches until he proves he can handle a major role, Ivory offers some value as the top candidate for touches in the Saints' backfield, and Dallas' Jones has been a hit-or-miss option who's too often left out of the team's game plan. Avoid both kickers, as New Orleans' Garrett Hartley and the Cowboys' David Buehler have each battled bouts of inconsistency, and neither defense has much upside either.
Dallas' recent upswing has certainly made this a more compelling contest then it appeared to be a few weeks back, and its excellent track record on Thanksgiving Day can't be minimized as well. That being said, the Saints have been performing at an exceptionally high level as of late, and the highly- competitive state that is the current NFC playoff picture makes every game from this point on a very important one for the reigning champs. When in doubt, it's never a bad decision to side with the team that has the better quarterback and the superior defense, and New Orleans qualifies in both respects. The Cowboys will battle hard with Garrett having restored a sense of pride and urgency, but the Saints' efficiency and discipline should ultimately win out.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 27, Cowboys 20
11/23 10:33:23 ET