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

row.”

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

lately.”

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

(9-4).

“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

two games.”

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.