Saints-Cowboys: What we learned

Peter Finney Jr., The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

NEW ORLEANS -- Except for the digital clock cranking out the growth of the national debt, numbers rarely flip as often as they did Sunday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Saints under Sean Payton have been the Greatest Show on Turf since 2006, but in a 49-17 rout of the Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans sent 21st-century computers into meltdown.
The numbers, stark and illustrative, told the entire story.
The Saints (7-2) set an NFL record with 40 first downs. Former Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, unceremoniously fired by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones during the offseason and snapped up by the Saints to serve in the same capacity, led a unit that held his former team to nine first downs -- one more than the number of Dallas punts.
New Orleans piled up a franchise-record 625 yards in total offense and held the Cowboys to 193. While the Saints converted nine of 12 third-down opportunities, the Cowboys (5-5) failed to convert on all nine of their third-down attempts. The Saints ran 80 offensive plays to the Cowboys' 43, and New Orleans held the ball for 39:32.
Quarterback Drew Brees at one point completed 19 consecutive passes against an injury-riddle Dallas defense -- matching his personal best -- and he finished 34 of 41 for 392 yards and four touchdowns. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, meanwhile, completed 10 of 24 for just 128 yards and was sacked three times.
Even Mark Ingram, the former first-round draft pick whom Saints fans love to hate, emerged from oblivion. After coming into the game with just 50 yards on 21 carries and serving as a scapegoat for the Saints' anemic rushing attack, Ingram exploded for 145 yards on 14 attempts -- the first 100-yard rushing game of his underwhelming career.
"You don't get to play a game like this very often," Payton said. "The team we played was banged up. We did a good job staying ahead of the chains. It was a good win for us."
Over in the quiet Dallas locker room, Jones said, "I didn't expect this. I didn't see it coming. I did think we were going to have to come in here and get some points on the board with them. We were compromised with some of our defensive personnel, but that's not an excuse. We still didn't play as well as they played."
Brees threw touchdown passes of 22 yards to wide receiver Marques Colston, 2 yards to running back Pierre Thomas, 28 yards to running back Darren Sproles and 52 yards to rookie wide receiver Kenny Stills. He completed passes to nine receivers, and Colston, Sproles and Thomas combined for 21 receptions for 207 yards and three scores.
Romo, meanwhile, didn't complete his first pass to a wide receiver until early in the third quarter, and wide receiver Dez Bryant had only two passes thrown his way. He caught one for 44 yards -- the Cowboys' longest play of the game -- but the game was long over by then.
"Losing in this league is hard for everybody," Dallas coach Jason Garrett said. "On offense, when we've been good on third down, it's typically because we got ourselves in favorable third-down situations. I believe you have to make third downs on first down."
While maintaining the Saints' one-game edge on the Carolina Panthers in the NFC South, Brees engineered six touchdown drives of at least 75 yards.

What the Saints said
"I thought the third-down snaps were important. We thought going into this game that that statistic, along with turnovers, were going to be the two key things. The third-down conversions, both offensively and defensively, and also the turnover battle were things we talked about." -- Coach Sean Payton, after the Saints went 9-for-12 on third down while the Cowboys went 0-for-9.
"We have put a lot of emphasis on the run game. We just wanted to come out here on a national stage and prove to everybody that we could play smash-mouth football and run the ball. All the running backs worked really hard in practice. The line did a great job. It's all on them. It makes our job easy when they dominate the line like that." -- Running back Mark Ingram, on his breakout, 145-yard performance.

What the Cowboys said
"Dez gets a lot of attention every week. Teams will come out and they will double him a lot of different ways. (The Saints) did that. He is one of those guys they want to take out of the game." -- Coach Jason Garrett, on wide receiver Dez Bryant being targeted only twice during the game and finishing with one reception for 44 yards.

What we learned about the Saints
1. The Saints (7-2) are entering a critical phase in their schedule, with a home game Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers (6-3), followed four days later by a road game against the Atlanta Falcons (2-7) and then a road game against the Seattle Seahawks (9-1). The good news for New Orleans is that both of its losses came against AFC teams (the New England Patriots and the New York Jets), which may help with NFC playoff tiebreakers. However, coach Sean Payton said the most important thing coming out of the 49-17 rout of the Dallas Cowboys was the emergence of the Saints' running game, which accounted for a season-high 242 yards on 38 carries.
"It's important for us to have that balance," Payton said. "Time of possession and all these things sway a game like that in your favor. Each week is a different challenge, and certainly this week coming up against San Francisco we will have our hands full with a very good defensive front."
2. Quarterback Drew Brees said getting wide receiver Marques Colston back from injury was a huge security blanket. The two connected for their 60th touchdown, ranking the quarterback-receiver combination seventh on the all-time NFL list.
"He's such a tough, durable guy who's always there," Brees said of Colston. "He's always battling something, but it's just a testament to his toughness. He never misses a rep in practice. He's just a warrior. He's the antithesis of what most people think of as a No. 1 receiver as far as glitz and glam and always in front of the camera or always being talked about. He just comes to work and is such a professional. I wouldn't trade him for anybody."
With four TD passes Sunday, Brees has 349 for his career, moving him past New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady into fourth place in league history.

What we learned about the Cowboys
1. The hot seat for coach Jason Garrett just moved into rotisserie mode. Callers to the Cowboys' call-in shows after the 49-17 debacle were demanding a guillotine trifecta: Garrett, offensive coordinator Bill Callahan and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, the man who will make those decisions, was keeping his cards close. The Cowboys are 5-5 and tied with the Philadelphia Eagles for the NFC East lead. They have a bye week now to figure out which body parts are still attached.
"I think I saw some of the stats at the end of the game talking about the kind of yards that had been gained against (us)," Jones said. "I think at the end of the day, we're trying to win the game. We've played 10 games and we have six more to go, and we have to put together a plan to give us a shot. We're trying to get to the playoffs, and we'll go from there."
2. Lost in the shuffle were the multiple injuries sustained by the Cowboys' defense. Defensive end DeMarcus Ware made a valiant effort to return from a strained quad that forced him to miss the previous three games. Ware had one sack against Saints quarterback Drew Brees, but every time he made a play, he had to limp to the sideline. The Cowboys already were without defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, who has a neck injury, and then they lost their best linebacker, Sean Lee, with a pulled hamstring in the second quarter.
"Nothing is ever easy," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "We played a team that is nicked up, and they had some players that haven't played that much."