It's bad enough that the Dallas Cowboys have those "December Swoon" jabs poking them ad nauseam more than halfway through a month that could see them missing the playoffs entirely; now "America's Team" has to travel to New Orleans and face the 13-0 Saints, a squad that knows quite a bit about overcoming adversity. They've enjoyed the blowouts common to all undefeated teams, but they also come back from three different 10-point deficits against the Washington Redskins two weeks ago and fought the Atlanta Falcons to the bloody end last Sunday. They're not perfect, but they have heart and desire and perhaps the best offensive game-caller in the business in head coach Sean Payton.
Tony Romo(notes) used to have Sean Payton. Back when he was Dallas' quarterbacks coach/assistant coach/passing game coordinator from 2003 through 2005, Payton was charged with turning the undrafted kid from Eastern Illinois into an NFL quarterback and getting him ahead of guys like Chad Hutchinson and Quincy Carter as soon as possible. Mission accomplished, and the job Payton did gave him the opportunity to take a Saints team hit with the kind of adversity never seen before by any sports franchise and bring them out of the doldrums. Mission accomplished, again. Now, nobody doubts Payton's ability to get things done on an enormous, nearly life-altering scale. If he isn't the best coach in football, he's on a pretty short list.
Payton made sure that defensive coordinator Gregg Williams came to the Big Easy by giving ownership some of his own money out of his own contract, and it's paid off -- Williams has redefined an opportunistic defense trying to overcome several injuries, especially in the secondary. When he faces that defense, Romo will be dealing with formations and fronts that will test every bit of his ability to dissect intentions and make correct pre-snap reads. That's an ability that some experts have questioned. He's got a three -headed monster at running back in Marion Barber(notes), Felix Jones(notes), and Tashard Choice(notes), and there are gains to be made against that defense.
Problem is, the Saints' offense is a ridiculous juggernaut that brings to mind the best teams in NFL history when it s firing on all cylinders. Drew Brees(notes) is consistently everything that Romo is only occasionally -- ensconced in the game plan, joined at the hip with his coach, a true leader and supreme difference-maker. He brings Payton's ridiculous array of formations to life, and that's where the Cowboys will struggle in this game - they like to play high-low with their safeties and leave their corners on islands a lot of the time, and Payton's all too familiar with the process. The play-calling will carve that defense up and force adjustments -- that's not Dallas' strength. Dallas will have pass-rushing end DeMarcus Ware(notes), but the Saints don't allow too many sacks and they adjust their gameplans to avoid pressure.
The way for the Cowboys to do what very few give them a chance to do is fairly academic. They must run the ball frequently and productively in a way that keeps Brees and his phalanx of receivers off the field. Nobody wins a shootout with the Saints. But their defense allows 4.4 yards per rushing attempt (defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis(notes) is not expected to play) and part of the reason they're so high-flying when Brees has the ball is to hide that vulnerability. If the Cowboys can slow this machine down and give it a few well-placed hits, they might just be able to hold off that seemingly inevitable December disaster.
- Sean Payton