End of the line: Cowboys hand Saints first loss

BY Alex Marvez • December 19, 2009

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.

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