It should come as no surprise the Dallas Cowboys are still in the hunt for a playoff spot with how the NFC has unfolded at season's end the past few years.
Left for dead almost two months ago with a 3-5 record and a head coach seemingly on his way out, the Cowboys have resuscitated their postseason aspirations and will continue to press on Sunday versus the visiting New Orleans Saints.
The Cowboys have won three in a row and five of six games since sitting two games under .500 and are in a three-way tie with the New York Giants and Washington Redskins for NFC East supremacy. The Redskins can capture the division crown by winning out, but must get passed Dallas at home in the season finale. New York can punch a playoff berth with two straight wins and have the Redskins and Cowboys lose at least once to bring home another NFC East crown.
Dallas has the biggest challenge ahead with New Orleans and Washington left on the docket, and will need some help along the way. Dallas' defense provided a lift in Sunday's 27-24 overtime triumph versus the Pittsburgh Steelers as Cowboys defensive back Brandon Carr intercepted a Ben Roethlisberger pass and returned it to the one-yard line. Dan Bailey then booted the game-winning 21- yard field goal to keep hope alive in Texas.
"I'm just proud to be a part of it, the way our players and coaches and staff members just keep battling," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. "It's just fun to be around this group. There's a relentlessness to the group. There's an undeniable will about the group, and I think those are really, really important traits to have."
Those traits came in handy when the Cowboys failed to hold onto a 10-point lead or when Pittsburgh forged a 24-17 advantage late in the game. A three- yard touchdown run by DeMarco Murray evened the score at 24 apiece, it was Murray's third touchdown run in as many games. Murray has taken some of the pressure off of quarterback Tony Romo now that he's back from a six-game absence because of a foot problem.
Murray said afterward this isn't the same Cowboys team from the past.
"This is a different team," Murray said. "Last year was last year. Two years ago was two years ago. We've got different guys, and we're just trying to grow as players, grow as individuals, but come together as a team. The best teams, later on in the year, they get better."
Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant displayed some toughness with a broken left index finger and caught four passes for 59 yards and a touchdown. Bryant debated whether or not to continue playing or opt for surgery. His presence kept Pittsburgh's defense honest and helped Romo eclipse the 25,000-yard mark in his career. Bryant has also scored a touchdown in six straight games (8 total) and has at least 50 yards receiving over that span.
The Cowboys have scored at least 20 points in the previous six games and must treat the last two games of the season as playoff games.
New Orleans is still mathematically alive for a playoff berth at 8-8 and will need assistance from other teams to make an improbable run after an 0-4 start and all the hoopla surrounding 'Bounty Gate.' The Saints would probably enjoy ruining Dallas' potential run to the playoffs while improving their own status and are coming off Sunday's impressive 41-0 pummeling of Tampa Bay.
The Saints were able to halt a three-game losing streak with a season-high in points and Drew Brees rebounded from two subpar outings. Brees, who had seven interceptions to just one TD pass in his past two contests, was 26-of-39 for 307 yards and a season high-tying four touchdown passes.
Brees has thrown three or more TD passes in a game nine times this season and extended his NFL-record streak of games with 20 or more completions to 50.
"We're in the business of winning football games around here. We won a football game, and now we go to Dallas," Saints coach Joe Vitt said. "It's going to take the proper preparation, the proper mindset, to compete with that football team."
Well, the Saints had a proper mindset in dismantling the Buccaneers and their intimidating offense. The Bucs were held to only 67 yards rushing, despite having rookie running back Doug Martin, who was limited to 16 yards on nine carries. Even Bucs QB Josh Freeman couldn't find his rhythm, ending 26-of-47 for 279 yards and four interceptions.
The Saints had five takeaways (four interceptions, one fumble) and no turnovers. Their plus-5 turnover margin was the largest since Nov. 2, 2003 at Tampa Bay. That's what aided the shutout. Brees, who avoided an interception for the first time in three games, hopes the offense can continue to give the defense rests from here on out.
"What's our job offensively? Score points," Brees said. "But in the process, we need to take care of the ball. We don't want to put our defense in tough positions. We want to possess the ball, keep them off the field, keep them rested so they can go out there fresh. Create those momentum changes that are positive for our defense. I feel like offensively, we've put our defense in some tough spots this year. Obviously, they've made some big plays at times to get us going, help us out."
New Orleans bounced back tremendously on both sides of the ball following a 52-27 loss against the Giants the week before. For a defense that couldn't stop a runny nose in the Meadowlands, the Saints' confidence has to be through the roof after taking control early on versus a playoff-hopeful Bucs squad. The loss led to some Buccaneer players questioning their head coach (Greg Schiano) and if he's worthy of working at this level.
The Saints could care less and are just focused on closing the season on a positive note; something to build on for the 2013 campaign.
"That's one of the things about our football team is (that) they always come back to work, good or bad," Vitt said. "There's always a strong accountability in the locker room to one another. This football team has exhibited that. It's been an honor to (have been) around them for seven years now. It's been fun to watch. We've got two games later and we're working hard to still get better."
New Orleans has Dallas and division-rival Carolina left on the docket. The Saints won the last meeting with the Cowboys, 30-27, on Nov. 25, 2010 at Dallas and are 6-1 in the last seven meetings between the teams. New Orleans has won three straight trips to Big D, but trails the series by a 15-9 count.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Saints can score points and rack up yards. That's a given. But, they're one of the worst defensive teams in the NFL. For a team that has been embroiled in a scandal for being too rough in years past, the Saints' defensive miscues has left them hanging by a thread in the playoff picture.
New Orleans enters Sunday's game fresh off a shutout of Tampa Bay, a team that has a weapon at running back and a quarterback who is hit or miss every week. Well, the Cowboys are the same way with Murray, who's back in the fold following a foot injury, and Romo. After bottling up Martin and picking off Freeman four times under new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the Saints have to be ready for what Dallas does best and that's throw the football.
Romo is facing a Saints defense that is 31st in both rushing yards allowed (146.3 ypg) and passing yards allowed (287.0 ypg) and dead last in total yards (433.3 ypg). Romo has thrown for at least 300-plus yards in six of the last eight games, and has two games remaining to break his season-best total of 4,483 yards set back in 2009. He currently has 4,269 yards passing -- the fourth 4,000-yard season in his career -- and set a single-season club record with 568 attempts. Dallas is 25-14 when Romo throws for 300 or more yards.
Against the Steelers, Romo was sacked just once. He hopes it stays that way for the remainder of the season.
"As the season progresses, you understand what your team needs, what we're good at, what we're struggling at," Romo said Sunday. "You know, I said it earlier in the year; we made some mistakes that cost us, things that we haven't made lately. It's everybody. But obvious ones are just some routes, me throwing the ball in different spots then I did earlier in the year, getting more time in different games; all that plays a role. If our guys can block the way they did today, we're going to be a dangerous football team."
Romo's favorite target, tight end Jason Witten, is five receptions behind Tony Gonzalez for the single-season record for catches by a tight end. Gonzalez set the record by hauling in 102 passes in 2004 as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Meanwhile, tickets will be sold to see the home team, but also Brees. Brees helped the Saints stop a three-game slide and record their first shutout since a 12-0 win at the New York Jets on Dec. 24, 1995. What also helped was that the Saints had five takeaways (four interceptions, one fumble) and no turnovers versus the Bucs. Brees has 19 four-TD games in his career, with New Orleans going 18-1 when he throws for that many scores.
The Cowboys could be in for a shootout and are 14th against the pass, allowing 225.1 ypg. Their secondary, which hopes to have rookie cornerback Morris Claiborne (concussion) back, has to deal with a myriad of targets in Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Jimmy Graham and the multi-talented Darren Sproles. Colston needs two more catches for his fourth consecutive year and sixth time in seven NFL seasons with at least 70 receptions.
"Every time we step on the field, we think about playing aggressive, scoring points, throwing the ball, running the ball, spreading it around, formationing people to death, multiple personnel groups, throwing it up and letting guys go make the play," Brees said. "We've done that very effectively."
There should be no shortage of offense in this one, with two high-level quarterbacks clashing under the big screen at Cowboys Stadium. Turnovers are key in winning and both Brees and Romo were interception free last week. Whether that stands one game later remains to be seen, but Brees and the Saints have basically nothing to play for besides pride. New Orleans knows it will be a dogfight against a desperate Dallas team hoping to keep its playoff aspirations afloat. The only problem is that hope can bite hard unexpectedly and it will Sunday for the Cowboys.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 27, Cowboys 21