In his first season as a head coach, Sean Payton has helped turn the New Orleans Saints around and has them on the verge of making the playoffs. Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells may also deserve some of the credit.
Payton can get his team to the postseason as early as Sunday when the Saints visit his former mentor and the Cowboys.
These two division leaders each have 8-4 records and two-game leads in their respective divisions. Through various scenarios, Sunday’s winner could clinch a playoff berth.
That’s something Payton would like to focus on instead of facing Parcells. Payton was an offensive assistant under the future Hall of Fame coach from 2003-05.
“He was an important part of my coaching career,” Payton said. “So, I am able to lean on him and my experiences with him. It’s been valuable for me and it’s not a new story and it’s happened throughout the years, a coach going back to coach against a coach who was a big influence on his life.
“The whole matching wits thing sounds like ‘Madden 07’. We are getting a team ready to play a game and a lot goes into that. What’s most important is that you have two teams that are 8-4. Two teams that have put themselves in a position, and I emphasize that, put themselves in position to play for a ninth win.”
The NFC East-leading Cowboys will try for a fifth straight victory Sunday, which would match their longest win streak since 2003.
Parcells’ decision to release struggling kicker Mike Vanderjagt last week and sign veteran Martin Gramatica paid off when Gramatica kicked a 46-yard field goal with one second remaining to give Dallas a 23-20 win over the New York Giants.
“I don’t really look at it as a gamble because it was something I felt needed to be done,” Parcells said of cutting Vanderjagt.
Dallas’ offense has been getting it done behind quarterback Tony Romo, the NFL’s top-rated passer at 102.4. Romo wasn’t spectacular against the Giants, going 20-for-34 for 257 yards and two interceptions, but played well in the second half.
His 42-yard pass to tight end Jason Witten highlighted Dallas’ final drive that set up the game-winning field goal.
“I think he’s got a pretty good sense of what’s going on,” Parcells said. “That took some doing and he did very well.”
Dallas is averaging 27.7 points per game, second only to San Diego. The Cowboys are averaging 28.4 at home, where they are 4-1.
Running back Marion Barber III needs two touchdowns to become the third player in franchise history to score 15 in a season.
Last Sunday was the first time since Nov. 5 that the Cowboys’ improving defense allowed 20 or more points in a game. That will be a challenge Sunday against the NFL’s top-ranked offense.
The NFC South-leading Saints are No. 1 in the league in total offense with 400.2 yards per game and with 297.3 passing yards a contest.
Drew Brees leads the NFL with 3,649 passing yards and is 7-1 with 13 touchdowns against the NFC this season, including back-to-back victories over Atlanta and San Francisco.
He threw for just 186 yards and a touchdown in last Sunday’s 34-10 win over the 49ers, but got plenty of support from rookie Reggie Bush, who scored four touchdowns and had 168 total yards—131 receiving.
“Obviously, I haven’t had the flashy runs or the breakthrough game like everybody has been expecting, but at the same time, I’m adjusting to the NFL,” said Bush, who was named the NFC offensive player of the week. “It’s the kind of a game I’ve been waiting for, too. It finally came.”
Bush, who has 73 receptions, needs 11 more to break the NFL rookie record by a running back set by San Francisco’s Earl Cooper in 1980.
The New Orleans defense, one of the weaker units in the league most of the season, recorded four sacks and held San Francisco to 202 total yards. The Saints have allowed a combined 23 points in their last two games.
They’re looking for their first playoff berth since 2000, but don’t want to look past the Cowboys.
“We’re far from that. It’s a significant game because it’s a (conference game),” Payton said. “Down the road it may have some significance. There’s a lot of meat on the bone still.”
Defensive tackle Hollis Thomas was suspended Tuesday for the final four games of the regular season for violating the league’s steroid policy. Thomas plans to appeal the suspension, which he believes was caused by his use of asthma medication.
New Orleans has won the last four meetings between these teams, including a 27-13 victory at Dallas on Dec. 12, 2004, in the last matchup. The Saints had lost their previous nine games at Texas Stadium before the win.