After three straight 5-11 seasons, the Dallas Cowboys have had a remarkable turnaround in Bill Parcells’ first season as coach.
When the Cowboys take the field against the New Orleans Saints at the Louisiana Superdome, they will know whether they have a chance to make the turnaround even better.
Assured of a wild card spot, Dallas can still win the NFC East and get a bye in the first round of the playoffs if Philadelphia loses at Washington on Saturday, and the Cowboys beat New Orleans on Sunday.
“We’ve got a shot, a heck of an opportunity here,” said Cowboys defensive tackle La’Roi Glover, who will face his former team for the first time since leaving as a free agent after the 2001 season.
The Cowboys clinched their first playoff berth since 1999 by beating the New York Giants 19-3 on Sunday. A few hours later, the Eagles lost in overtime to San Francisco, keeping Dallas’ division dreams alive.
“Washington could do us a huge favor by playing their best ball of their lives,” Glover said. “I think they can do it.”
It might be wishful thinking to expect the Redskins, losers of five of six and nine of 11, to beat the Eagles, winners of nine straight before Sunday’s loss.
However, the mere possibility of having something to play for will drive the Cowboys all week and prevent them from looking past the Saints.
“It makes a big difference to our whole mindset,” Dallas quarterback Quincy Carter said. “Everybody is going to be focused on the Saints. We can’t be thinking about Minnesota or Green Bay now.”
The biggest thing Dallas needs against New Orleans is to continue the momentum it’s built the last two weeks.
Since losing three of four, the Cowboys have bounced back with two convincing wins, albeit against bad teams—27-0 at Washington on Dec. 14, and against the Giants on Sunday. Still, their top-ranked defense allowed just three points in the wins and Carter continues to manage the offense efficiently by avoiding interceptions.
Parcells said he’s starting to expect big plays from the defense and he’s finding more to like about his offense.
They’re fourth-best in the NFL in time of possession and they’ve achieved the ultimate in balance—492 runs and 492 passes.
Even if the Eagles win and this game becomes meaningless for the Cowboys, Parcells is adamant he won’t keep his starters out of the game.
“It’s stupid to do that,” he said. “This is a 16 game season, not 15. You play every game to try to win games. I have never done that. Never.”
Although he said “I would never rest anybody,” he did say some backups “might play a little bit more.”
The Cowboys’ task will be a little easier, because the Saints will be without wide receiver Joe Horn, who leads the team in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns.
Horn, fined $30,000 last week for pulling a cell phone from the goal post padding after a touchdown against the Giants on Dec. 21, separated his shoulder Sunday in New Orleans’ heartbreaking 20-19 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
New Orleans was eliminated from the wild-card race when John Carney missed a tying extra point after the Saints scored a 75-yard touchdown on one of the wackiest plays in NFL history.
“This seems to be, as far as kickers are concerned, as bad as it gets,” Carney said.
After a long video review, Carney—403-for-408 on extra points in his 14-year career and 35-for-35 this season—hit a dead push, sailing the kick wide right.
“I just came out of the kick early and pushed it,” Carney said. “I was prepared. I was ready to get back in the game.”
New Orleans looked flat most of the afternoon as McAllister was limited to just 50 yards rushing, but the Saints played just well enough to keep it close. Fakhir Brown blocked Seth Marler’s 21-yard field-goal attempt with 9:24 left to keep them within a touchdown.
“There were a lot of opportunities before that for us to win the game,” New Orleans coach Jim Haslett said.
New Orleans allowed the Jaguars 243 yards rushing, including 194 by Fred Taylor. The Saints, meanwhile, gained a skimpy 61 yards on the ground. Brooks completed 22 of 38 passes for 296 yards and two touchdowns.
However, the Saints did not gain a single first down rushing and scored only once in three trips inside the red zone.
“Until our team realizes that one of two or three plays every game decides the outcome of the game, and that it’s the little things that get you over the hump, we’re going to be right where we are,” Haslett said.
The Saints will not use this game to look at young players or work on the offensive or defensive schemes. Haslett knows an 8-8 mark will be easier to live with than 7-9.
“We need to go out and play well this week and have some carry-over for next year,” Haslett said.
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