Thursday, December 17, 2009

For New Orleans Saints, Dallas Cowboys, there's a lot at stake

By Mike Triplett
The Times-Picayune
December 17, 2009, 8:00AM

They haven't consistently performed like "America's Team" for the past decade, but it's still a big deal when the Dallas Cowboys come to town.

Outside of the New Orleans Saints, the Cowboys might have more fans throughout Louisiana than any other NFL team. They might also have more haters than any other NFL team.

And all of them should be plenty vocal Saturday night in the Superdome with a national television audience watching on the NFL Network.

Throw in the fact that the Saints are trying to protect a 13-0 record, and the 8-5 Cowboys are desperately clinging to their playoff hopes after two consecutive losses, and you have all the makings of a must-see event.

"We have a lot to play for, and they have a lot to play for, " Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "And you wouldn't want it any other way. We're going to get their best game, they're going to get our best game. That's great for us, great for them and great for all those watching."

The last time the Saints played the Cowboys, in December 2006, it was a defining moment for the franchise. The rebuilt New Orleans roster, under first-year coach Sean Payton, shocked the Cowboys with a 42-17 victory in Texas Stadium.

This time around, the tables have turned -- but only slightly, Saints offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb said.

"Do I see anything (similar)? Like Dallas wants to come in here and knock us off our block?" Stinchcomb said. "Yeah, that's any team these days."

But, he added, "There's still a lot of proving for this team to do. I feel like we still have a little bit of chip on our shoulder and we're fighting for respect.

"There's no doubt in my mind that they're going to come in here and put their best foot forward and try to whip us, just like any other team. And that's what we want to see. We want to see their best, and we want to be able to answer the bell."

The Saints have been getting used to that kind of treatment as this historic season has carried on. They barley overcame their past two road trips to Washington and Atlanta, fending off inspired performances by both struggling teams.

Brees said he knows the way those teams feel from firsthand experience. When he was with the San Diego Chargers in 2005, they handed the Indianapolis Colts their first loss of the season in Week 15.

"Now there's not many things I remember (fondly) about that season because we did not make the playoffs, " Brees said. "But you remember that one."

Now come the Cowboys, who are in desperate need of a momentum boost after coughing up the NFC East lead to Philadelphia in the past two weeks.

"We need this game, " Dallas quarterback Tony Romo said bluntly. "It's an important game for us and our season, where we are in the standings. So we're going to come out and hopefully play our best football game of the year.

"We'll see what kind of team we've got."

The Cowboys' mettle has been doubted in recent years because of an ugly trend of late-season collapses.

They haven't won a playoff game since 1996. They're 18-37 after Dec. 1 during that span, including the playoffs. And they're 3-7 after Dec. 1 under Coach Wade Phillips in the past three seasons -- including a 20-17 loss at home to San Diego last week and a 31-24 loss to the Giants in New York two weeks ago.

And now it looks like they may have to go into battle without their best defensive player, linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who left Sunday's game with a neck injury. Ware did not practice Wednesday and appears doubtful for Saturday's game, but he has not been ruled out.

Phillips, who has caught the most heat from the local and national media, said the past has no bearing on the present, and pointed out the Cowboys were resting their starters for one of those losses two years ago when they finished 13-3.

"We don't worry about that. We worry about this ballgame. That's the only one we can do anything about, " Phillips said. "We're in position to make a playoff run and that's what we're trying to do."

Romo, who hasn't escaped the heat, said a win Saturday would help quiet those critics . . . sort of.

"For one week it would, " Romo said. "But I think it's just part of trying to reach your goals. You have to go through all this stuff, ups and downs during the regular season.

"I think even from the perspective of the Saints, they're undefeated, but I'm sure there are plenty of weeks that they still have gotten things locally about what they're not doing right or something they're not doing that could haunt them or something like that. That's part of playing the game, and having to deal with all that stuff is part of the internal stuff you have to get over week to week."

Indeed, the Saints have been facing many more questions recently about their struggles on defense, particularly against the pass.

And now here come the Cowboys, with a balanced and explosive offense that ranks third in the NFL in yards per game (391.1).

So both teams are facing a stiff challenge, both teams have something to prove and both have a lot on the line.

Like Brees said, that's an enticing mix for the teams themselves and the fans who'll be filling the Dome.

"I just know our fans are going to tear that stadium down with their excitement, " said Saints tailback Pierre Thomas, who said the fans already were working themselves into a frenzy while he was at an autograph signing Tuesday night.

"The neat thing about sports, the exciting thing, is that you get an opportunity once in a while to be part of a great challenge, " Romo said. "And I think that it's going to be very enjoyable to take part in this football game."