Wednesday, December 16, 2009

NFL Preview - Dallas (8-5) at New Orleans (13-0)

The Sports Network

Motivation should not be hard to come by at the Louisiana Superdome on Saturday night, when the New Orleans Saints play host to the Dallas Cowboys in a matchup between two of the NFL's most compelling teams in 2009.

The Saints, who have 13 wins for the first time in franchise history and have already sewn up the NFC South title and a first-round bye, can lay claim to homefield advantage throughout the NFC portion of the playoffs with a victory and a Minnesota loss at Carolina on Sunday night.

From a historical perspective, New Orleans can become the first team in NFC history to start 14-0 in a season, a milestone that the Saints - who have loudly declared their intention to finish 16-0 - clearly want to achieve.

New Orleans is in this position thanks in part to its ability to live dangerously and still find a way to win over the past two weeks. In Week 13, the Saints looked to be dead to rights against the Washington Redskins, but a missed chip-shot field goal by the Redskins fueled a comeback that gave the Saints a 33-30 overtime win.

Then, last week, the Saints turned back a rally by the Atlanta Falcons, as Garrett Hartley kicked his second game-winning field goal in as many weeks to give New Orleans a 26-23 victory. The Falcons tied the score at 23-23 after being down by a 23-9 margin in the third quarter, and Atlanta had multiple opportunities to pull ahead following Hartley's 38-yard kick with 4:42 remaining.

But a Saints defense that has been tested in recent weeks turned Atlanta back twice to preserve the home victory.

That type of resolve has not been present in Dallas Cowboys camp of late.

The Cowboys are just 2-3 over their last five games, a stretch that has placed Wade Phillips' former first-place club a game back of the NFC East-leading Philadelphia Eagles as Week 15 begins.

The team's last two losses have been particularly grating, as Dallas has failed to finish the job in defeats against the Giants (31-24) and Chargers (20-17), adding fuel to speculation that Dallas is not mentally tough enough to win games in December.

After dropping their first two outings this month, the Cowboys are now 5-11 in the months of December and January with Tony Romo as their starting quarterback.

Despite the recent struggles, Dallas (8-5) enters Week 15 occupying the second of two wild card spots in the NFC, just ahead of the New York Giants (7-6), Atlanta Falcons (6-7), and San Francisco 49ers (6-7).


Dallas holds a 14-8 lead in its all-time series with New Orleans, but has dropped five straight games to the Saints since last beating them in 1994. New Orleans was a 42-17 road winner when the teams last met, in 2006, and prevailed by a 13-7 margin when the clubs last met at the Superdome, in 2003. The Cowboys last defeated the Saints in 1994 at the Superdome.

Saints head coach Sean Payton, an assistant under Bill Parcells with Dallas from 2003 to 2005, is 1-0 against his former employer as a head coach. The Cowboys' Phillips, who was an assistant in New Orleans from 1981 to 1985, including a four-game stint as interim head coach in his final year there, is 1-1 against the Saints as a head coach. Phillips' father, Bum Phillips, served as Saints head coach from 1981 to 1985.


Romo (3574 passing yards, 22 TD, 7 INT) and the Cowboys haven't had trouble generating offense per se during their two-game losing streak, but the attack has had major trouble finishing off drives with points. Never was this affliction more evident than in the second quarter of last week's San Diego loss, when Marion Barber was stone-walled on a 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line, following which struggling kicker Nick Folk missed a short field goal. Dallas was 1-of-8 on third-down conversions for the day. Establishing the run with Barber (716 rushing yards, 4 TD, 20 receptions) and Felix Jones (478 rushing yards, 2 TD, 11 receptions) will likely be a main directive for a Cowboys team that needs to keep Brees off the field on Saturday. The duo combined for 98 yards on 24 combined carries last week. When Romo throws it, he'll target top wideouts Miles Austin (58 receptions, 10 TD) and Roy Williams (36 receptions, 6 TD), along with tight end Jason Witten (77 receptions, 1 TD). Williams logged a team-high 74 receiving yards against San Diego, while Austin and fellow wideout Patrick Crayton (31 receptions, 4 TD) both scored touchdowns. The Cowboys are third in the league in total offense (391.1 yards per game), but just 13th in scoring offense (22.8 points per game).