NEW ORLEANS – Jerry Jones walked out of the silent visitors locker room and flat-out admitted it.
"I just didn't expect this," the Dallas Cowboys owner said. "I never saw this coming."
And that's kind of a funny thing, because the New Orleans Saints saw everything coming.
The Cowboys allowed an NFL record 40 first downs in a 49-17 obliteration here Sunday, and Jones was as besieged by questions after the game as his team was during it.
Was that the worst defensive performance he's ever seen?
Did the team quit in the second half?
Was it a mistake letting defensive coordinator Rob Ryan go?
He wouldn't bite hard on any of that, other than to call his team's performance "embarrassing," but sometimes the questions are more significant than the answers. The Cowboys were blown off the ball Sunday, and the Saints freely admitted there were no surprises coming from the defense Ryan left behind in Dallas.
"We were in situations where we knew what was coming before it came," said Saints right tackle Zach Strief. "We knew it pretty early."
The entire Saints offensive line got a game ball, but that only came in the afterglow of a runaway where confusion and frustration didn't really happen at all. Head coach Sean Payton knew the first-down record was in reach late in the fourth quarter, and he went for it on fourth down in garbage time, even though Drew Brees was standing next to him and Luke McCown was in the game.
"I think Luke told the guys in the huddle. They thought he was kidding around," Brees said.
It was that bad for the Cowboys and that good for the Saints.
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"It was amazing," said left tackle Charles Brown with a smile. "From the start, the run looked good. It was unfolding just like we saw on film. Where the linebackers were going to be sitting at, everything."
In fairness to the Cowboys, there were tons of injuries. Sean Lee went out of the game, Jason Hatcher didn't play at all, and DeMarcus Ware was banged up throughout. But that explains a loss, not a demolition. The Saints had 625 total yards – a franchise record for the regular season – and they are the first team in the Super Bowl era to have 230 rushing yards and 380 passing yards in the same game. Dallas is still in the playoff hunt at 5-5, but after a performance like that, what evidence is there that the Cowboys will last more than 60 minutes in the playoffs?
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The more intriguing questions surround the Saints. Payton's team is beating opponents in ways they haven't done since the '09 season's title run. The Saints have won with defense – non-existent last season – and with a healthy rushing attack. Stopping Brees has usually led to wins against New Orleans. Now there are other factors to worry about.
At least here, inside.
The Saints are big and bad in the Superdome – all but unbeatable. Brees' throws are near-impossible to defend and the confidence of the defense is tangible. "The childlike enthusiasm," said defensive back Jabari Greer. "It's an enthusiasm we haven't had in a long time."
Outside the dome? Eh. Not as overwhelming. Not as dominating. A good team, yes, but not terrifying. The Saints lost to the New York Jets (and Rex Ryan) last week, and it's hard to see that kind of defeat happening inside. This year's Saints may have made it to the Superdome for a shot at the Lombardi Trophy last February. Instead, they are fighting for dome-field advantage so they can play outside, in the cold, in New Jersey.
So too are the Seattle Seahawks, who have become the Saints' doppelganger: ferocious at home and just plain good on the road. New Orleans travels to Seattle next month and it sets up as one of the most meaningful regular-season games left on the schedule. Can you imagine Seattle coming here and winning in the playoffs? Can you imagine the Saints going up there and winning in the playoffs? Sure you could but not with a lot of ease.
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Between now and that Dec. 2 showdown, the Saints have to figure out how to keep running the ball at will. Mark Ingram had his first 100-yard game against Dallas and it's a bit disappointing that it took more than two full seasons for him to hit that milestone. "It's about becoming more balanced," said receiver Lance Moore, "like we were tonight."
The difficult truth is that it will be a lot harder for the Saints to dominate the line of scrimmage against elite opponents than it was against the Cowboys. Of the seven remaining opponents on the Saints' schedule, two are against the Panthers, one against the Seahawks, and one this coming weekend against the 49ers. It's hard to imagine offensive linemen like Strief standing at his locker after those games saying things like, "Guys were a little more comfortable tonight."
They will likely be a lot less comfortable in the weeks ahead. At least they see that coming.
As for what Jerry Jones sees coming? Well, it's not looking pretty.
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