End of the line: Cowboys hand Saints first loss
The Cajun-style jazz funeral made its anticipated Saturday night
procession through the Louisiana Superdome.
Only it was New Orleans’ perfect record and not the
Dallas Cowboys’ season that was being buried.
A franchise whose playoff hopes were on life support proved
its pulse still beats strong. In the process, the previously
unbeaten Saints are flawless no more following a 24-17 home defeat.
“Things weren’t going well for us with two
losses,” Cowboys coach Wade Phillips said. “But I
didn’t think this team could get beat three times in a
Phillips is among the few who believed that. A seven-point
favorite, New Orleans (13-1) was expected to continue its march
toward the NFC’s top playoff seed while sending Dallas (9-5)
deeper into what was becoming yet another December swoon.
“We don’t normally go into a game thinking we
have no chance, but a lot of people were,” said Cowboys
quarterback Tony Romo, who helped fuel the upset with 312 passing
yards and one touchdown. “I can understand it from the
situation where they’re at and how we’ve been playing
Even one of the NFL’s most respected head
coaches-turned-talking heads thought the Cowboys were cooked. But
give the embattled Phillips credit for turning Tony Dungy’s
comments into a positive for his reeling squad. Romo said clips of
Dungy claiming Dallas had “no chance” to defeat the
Saints were shown Friday night during a team meeting.
“That was surprising from an ex-coach, but it was able
to motivate us,” Romo said.
Added Cowboys outside linebacker and Saturday’s
defensive hero DeMarcus Ware: “When somebody says you
can’t do something and counts you out before you even play,
that puts gas on the fire. Once we watched that tape and went to
bed, it marinated in our heads.”
And soaked and soaked.
Ware said Dungy’s words resonated so strongly that the
pre-game atmosphere in the Cowboys locker room completely changed.
Ware said there was “no music, no cool-riding, no speeches.
Even when we did the team prayer before the game, guys didn’t
say anything [afterward]. It was just guys getting ready.”
Yup, these underachieving Cowboys actually acted like men.
Their opening 2 1/2 quarters were nearly flawless as Dallas
took a 24-3 lead. The Cowboys were well en route to a 439-yard
offensive effort with a balanced game plan while keeping New
Orleans’ high-powered offense (albeit one sans injured tight
end Jeremy Shockey and running back Reggie Bush) in check. Despite
almost quarterbacking a late rally, Drew Brees struggled enough
that he is now a clear No. 2 in the NFL’s Most Valuable
Player race behind — ironically enough — one of
Dungy’s former players in Colts QB Peyton Manning. Brees
threw an interception inside Cowboys territory, was sacked four
times and harassed repeatedly in a 298-yard outing.
“Sometimes you have go through heartbreak like this to
put that extra chip on your shoulder and play even better,”
Brees said. “We didn’t play our best game tonight. Far
from it. Dallas played better.”
Such an admission is true but nonetheless stunning
considering how much Dallas was struggling. There was ample reason
to start writing a Cowboys obituary after previous losses to the
New York Giants and San Diego. The running game was unreliable.
Special teams were floundering. Ware — the Cowboys’
best defensive player — suffered such a scary neck injury
last Sunday that it was uncertain until hours before kickoff
whether he would play against New Orleans.
And then there was the psychological baggage of 13 seasons
without a winning December in Dallas. Negativity was pouring into
the Cowboys locker room. Public optimism from Phillips and Cowboys
owner Jerry Jones was being openly mocked by Dallas fans and media
who weren’t buying the “nothing-to-see-here,
just-move-along” message being preached.
“A lot of people said, ‘Ha ha,’ because
you’re playing the Saints,” Phillips said.
Phillips can laugh now, but not even an 18-point lead was
enough to shake the feeling that a car crash was coming. The Saints
gradually worked their way back, scoring touchdowns after two
Cowboys drives stalled. Dallas then left the door open for overtime
when Nick Folk clanked a 24-yard field-goal attempt off the right
upright with 2:16 remaining. Brees moved New Orleans to the Cowboys
42-yard line with 12 seconds remaining.
Ware, though, helped make sure that this December day would
be different for Dallas. He zipped around overmatched Saints left
tackle Jermon Bushrod for a sack-and-strip of Brees, leading to a
fumble recovery by Cowboys defensive tackle Jay Ratliff and
sideline celebration that spilled onto the field.
“I think [Ware] is alright,” Phillips deadpanned.
So are the Cowboys. Dallas can win the division by winning
its final two match-ups against Washington (4-9) and Philadelphia
“This is recovery time from all the losses,” Ware
said. “In December, people say we can’t get a big win.
We got that big win and it’s going to propel us into the next
Whether the Cowboys keep that momentum is anyone’s
guess. Dallas also controlled its postseason fate last year before
getting eliminated with two season-ending losses. Not even as
impressive a win as toppling the Saints is enough to compensate for
an entire season of inconsistency from this year’s squad.
But at least for now, the Cowboys can brush the dirt off
their uniforms. The undertaker is at bay. And skeptics be damned
— Dallas is still very much alive in the Super Bowl hunt.