The ring leader

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

IRVING, Texas – Call it the kiss of approval.

In the aftermath of his team's stunning 42-17 victory over the Dallas Cowboys, first-year New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton was more than a little giddy. He walked around the New Orleans locker room shaking hands with his players and introduced them to a couple of pals he had invited down to the celebration.

Finally, Payton hit the emotional high. Seemingly a little tipsy with emotion, Payton walked up to cornerback Mike McKenzie, hugged his defender and gave him a kiss on the right cheek.

"I got a smooch from my coach," McKenzie said, smiling a little uncomfortably but laughing at the moment.

At 9-4, the Saints have arrived in a place where pretty much anything goes. Better yet, anything the Saints do seems to go right.

On Sunday night, the Saints laid waste to a Dallas team that had won four straight and was looking like a strong bet to make a Super Bowl run. Now at 8-5, the Cowboys may have to go through New Orleans – which has the inside track on the No. 2 seed in the NFC – even if they manage to win the NFC East.

Dallas might also have to again deal with Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who picked the Cowboys apart with one great play call after another. Furthermore, Brees continued his exceptional method of getting the most out of his assortment of receivers by keeping them all involved.

Brees completed 26 of 38 passes for 384 yards and five touchdowns, building a great case for league MVP if not for that former teammate who still runs the ball in San Diego and just set the record for touchdowns in a season.

Brees completed passes to 10 different receivers. Five guys then combined to run for 159 yards as the Saints put up 536 yards of total offense. That included six plays of 20 yards or longer in a performance that might have cut through the confidence Dallas had built in recent weeks.

"We took a bad beating tonight," Cowboys coach Bill Parcells said. "We got beat just about every way possible."

Brees was the catalyst in all of it from an offensive standpoint, spreading the ball as needed and following Payton's well-designed plan. Payton, Parcells' former assistant, obviously knew how to attack Dallas. In particular, he found ways to isolate his receivers on safety Roy Williams.

But all the best plans in the world need someone to effectively carry them out. Brees, who was essentially discarded by the Chargers because of a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder, was on target with throw after throw.

"He's everything you want in a quarterback," said wide receiver Devery Henderson, who caught a 42-yard score and set up another with a 50-yard catch. "He's telling you what he needs all the time and he's expecting you to make a play. He reads the field so fast and finds the weakness in the defense every time."

Of course, Payton helped set that up.

"Him being there for three years, he knew a lot of the personnel," Brees said, referring to Payton's time with Dallas. "This route works better against this guy or that guy. But we still have to go out there and play the game."

Brees' method has also allowed different players to be important at different times. Early in the season, it was rookie wide receiver Marques Colston. When Colston was hurt for three weeks, Henderson stepped up.

Last week, rookie running back Reggie Bush had four touchdowns in a breakout game as Brees threw nine passes to him. Bush was again the leading receiver on Sunday with six catches for 125 yards, including a back-breaking, 61-yard touchdown on a screen pass.

But the unlikely hero and latest example of Brees' spread-the-wealth style was third-year fullback Mike Karney, who scored three touchdowns, two on receptions. They were the first three touchdowns of his career. Even more, Karney had only one touchdown in college.

He capped his impressive outing with a 6-yard touchdown catch in which he tiptoed along the sideline and then dove. As he was in the air, he switched the ball from his left hand to his right and extended the ball to hit the pylon. He was initially ruled out short of the goal line, but the Saints won a challenge. It was a little bit of Michael Vick from a guy who with squatty legs runs as if he has a cooler of beer on his back.

"The last time I pulled a move like that? Probably back in the family room of my house when I was growing up," Karney said.

Like Payton's kiss, not everything Karney does looks pretty.

But on Sunday, it turned out great.

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