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NFL Preview - Dallas (8-5) at New Orleans (13-0)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(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.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
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).
A Saints defense that has surrendered 53 points and 847 yards over the past two weeks will try to tighten up the screws a bit against the Cowboys on Saturday. That effort will have to start against the pass, where the team has allowed the likes of Jason Campbell and Chris Redman to throw for 300-plus the last two weeks. Cornerbacks Malcolm Jenkins (38 tackles, 1 INT) and Randall Gay (29 tackles, 1 INT) could have primary responsibility against the Dallas receivers, with safeties Darren Sharper (54 tackles, 8 INT) and Roman Harper (87 tackles, 1.5 sacks) lending support over the top. Sharper continues to lead the league in interception return yards (355) and interception returns for touchdowns (3), but has just one pick over his past five games. The pass rush has been led throughout the year by end Will Smith (37 tackles, 10 sacks, 1 INT), who ranks among NFL sack leaders but has been shut out of that category over his past two games. New Orleans is a middle-of-the-pack 19th in NFL run defense (112 yards per game) and should be challenged in that regard by the Cowboys backs. Tackle Sedrick Ellis (28 tackles, 2 sacks), who had three tackles and a sack against the Falcons, will lead the run-stopping effort at the point of attack. Linebackers Jonathan Vilma (89 tackles, 3 INT, 1 sack) and ex-Cowboy Scott Shanle (63 tackles, 2 INT) have been the club's best run-stuffers in the next line of defense. Gregg Williams' defense leads the NFL in takeaways (37), and forced fumbles lost (13) as Week 15 begins.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Saints quarterback Drew Brees (3832 passing yards, 10 INT) continued to state his MVP case last week, completing a clinically-accurate 31-of-40 passes for 296 yards with three touchdowns and no turnovers or sacks absorbed. Brees leads the NFL in touchdown passes (32) and passer rating (112.3), and New Orleans is No. 1 in total offense (4261 yards per game), scoring offense (35.8 points per game), touchdowns (59), and completion percentage (69.7). True to form, five different players caught four passes or more in the win, including six each for No. 1 wideout Marques Colston (56 receptions, 9 TD) and running backs Reggie Bush (310 rushing yards, 39 receptions, 8 TD) and Pierre Thomas (713 rushing yards, 34 receptions, 7 TD). The hot-and-cold Bush had two touchdown receptions in the victory. Robert Meachem (33 receptions, 8 TD) had a team-high 57 receiving yards in the win but did not have a touchdown for the first time in six weeks, and tight end Jeremy Shockey (48 receptions, 3 TD) chipped in with four grabs for 46 yards. As much as New Orleans has been pegged a pass-happy team, the Saints have also displayed an ability to run the football, ranking fifth in NFL rushing offense (138.9 yards per game) while using three different backs. Thomas was high-man last Sunday, rushing 13 times for 47 yards in the win over the Falcons. The New Orleans offensive line has done a terrific job of protecting Brees all year, surrendering just 15 sacks on the year.
Clearly, the Cowboys' ability to pull the upset in New Orleans will be predicated on their ability to handle Brees and the Saints passing attack. Cornerbacks Terence Newman (52 tackles, 2 INT), Mike Jenkins (40 tackles, 4 INT), and Orlando Scandrick (34 tackles, 1 INT) figure to be particularly busy, with safeties Gerald Sensabaugh (58 tackles, 1 INT) and Alan Ball (26 tackles) needing to be on their game as well. Newman had the team's only interception of Philip Rivers last Sunday. The secondary's job will be made easier if top pass rusher DeMarcus Ware (51 tackles, 9 sacks), who was carted off the field after suffering a scary neck injury against the Chargers, is able to play and get some pressure on Brees. Ware is regarded as questionable for Saturday night, and his lack of availability would put extra pressure on Victor Butler (16 tackles, 3 sacks) and Anthony Spencer (51 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT), among others, to provide some heat off the edge. Dallas is a solid eighth in the league against the run (100.2 yards per game), and comes off a week in which the team held LaDainian Tomlinson to just 50 yards on 21 carries. Ends Marcus Spears (20 tackles, 2 sacks) and Igor Olshansky (35 tackles, 1 sack) have been active at the point of attack this season, and inside linebackers Keith Brooking (92 tackles, 3 sacks) and Bradie James (90 tackles, 1 sack) have done much of the clean-up behind them.
The Cowboys have not been a very consistent team from a fantasy standpoint, but against a Saints defense that has given up its share of yards and points of late, you should feel comfortable in rolling with the likes of Romo, Witten, and Austin for your playoff games. Barber, who has gone six straight games without a touchdown, has had a disappointing year and is a risky play, as is Jones. Roy Williams has four touchdowns in his past four games and is a credible choice, but the Cowboys defense and kickers most certainly are not.
For a team with as prolific an offense as the Saints, there curiously aren't a lot of lead-pipe-cinch fantasy options apart from Brees. The "problem" is the team's depth at running back, wide receiver, and tight end. Of the backs, Bush is probably the most preferable because he's scored in five of his last seven appearances. Of the receivers, Meachem has seven touchdowns in his past six games, but has had more than five grabs just once all year. Colston has scored in his last three outings and might be a better option. The Saints defense has been an OK start because of its playmaking ability, but has allowed seven of its last nine opponents to score 20 or more points.
The Saints shouldn't have much trouble rousing themselves for a primetime home game against the storied Cowboys, and it is worth noting that New Orleans has played some of its best football, during this magical season, in games in which the whole world is watching. Dallas, meanwhile, has more often than not wilted in the spotlight this season, and that's not a good sign for a team that has both a talent and coaching disadvantage in this one. Look for the Cowboys to have trouble getting the Saints off the field, and to struggle to finish off drives. In other words, expect the Cowboys to play like the Cowboys and lose another December football game.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 35, Cowboys 23
12/16 17:39:06 ET