The Saints look to move closer to clinching the NFC’s top seed Saturday night when they host the Cowboys, who are again struggling in December.
New Orleans (13-0) set a franchise record for wins and clinched a first-round bye with a 26-23 victory over Atlanta on Sunday. For the second week in a row, though, its perfect record was in jeopardy late.
With just over a minute remaining in the fourth quarter, the Falcons drove to the Saints’ 46-yard line. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma(notes) finally sealed the win with a crushing fourth-down hit on Jason Snelling(notes), stopping him a yard short of the marker.
The victory came one week after New Orleans defeated Washington 33-30 in overtime after trailing by a touchdown with less than 2 minutes to play.
Quarterback Drew Brees(notes) isn’t concerned with final scores, and his team can clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win or tie and a Minnesota loss or tie at Carolina on Sunday.
“What’s important to me is that we’re making the plays in crunch time. When we’re called upon to make them, we’re making them,” said Brees, who completed 73.0 percent of his passes for 1,273 yards with 13 touchdowns and one interception in his last four games. “We call that being battle-tested. They’re only going to get harder from here on out. We’re going to get everyone’s best game.”
Next up for New Orleans is a Dallas team desperately in need of a victory.
The Cowboys (8-5) entered December with six wins in seven games, but in an all-too-familiar scene, opened the month with back-to-back losses.
Dallas came into last December 8-4, but went 1-3 the rest of the way and suffered a season-ending 44-6 defeat at Philadelphia that kept it out of the playoffs. The Cowboys haven’t enjoyed a winning December since going 2-1 in 1996.
Dallas dropped a game behind the first-place Eagles in the NFC East with a 20-17 loss to San Diego on Sunday. Despite falling off the pace, the Cowboys would win the division title with a 3-0 finish, as they host Philadelphia in their finale.
New Orleans has played a big part in Dallas’ December struggles.
The Saints have won five straight over the Cowboys - all in December. In the last meeting, Brees threw for 384 yards and five touchdowns in a 42-17 victory Dec 10, 2006.
Brees and the Saints should benefit from a return to the Superdome after the two close calls on the road. Brees threw for 1,926 yards with 18 touchdowns and three interceptions in New Orleans’ six home games, with the offense averaging 36.7 points.
The Saints’ defense might also receive a boost from playing in front of the home crowd after looking worn down in the last two contests. New Orleans, which allowed an average of 423.5 yards in those games, yielded 329.8 over its six home contests.
Some of the Saints’ recent troubles on defense have stemmed from injuries to linebacker Scott Fujita(notes) (knee) and starting cornerbacks Jabari Greer(notes) (sports hernia) and Tracy Porter(notes) (knee). Fujita, who missed two games, and Porter, who sat out four, could be back Sunday.
Dallas has had little trouble moving the ball, but scoring is another story.
The Cowboys are third in the NFL in offense at 403.5 yards a game, but were held to two touchdowns or fewer in three of their last five.
When Dallas does get close to scoring, it has not been able to count on its kicker. Nick Folk(notes) missed six of his last nine field-goal attempts, although the Cowboys are planning on sticking with him for at least one more week.
Dallas might be without its best pass rusher, as DeMarcus Ware(notes) is uncertain due to a sprained neck suffered against the Chargers. The three-time Pro Bowl linebacker leads the team with nine sacks, a category he led the NFL in last season with 20.
“If he’s cleared medically then he could play,” coach Wade Phillips said. “There’s a possibility that could happen.”