After week 12 of the 2018 NFL season, the Dallas Cowboys sit atop the NFC East. Let that sink in for a minute. Now think back to roughly a month ago. The 3-5 Cowboys were coming off of an embarrassing home defeat to the Tennessee Titans and the season seemed all but over. The national media was not only having a field day with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan but also taking their shots at the front office for having “overpaid” for Amari Cooper. Dak Prescott was a bust, Ezekiel Elliott had lost a step, and Jason Garrett was the worst head coach in the league.
Fast forward back to present day and it is amazing what a month can do. Zeke is eating like a fat kid at Golden Corral, the Cooper trade looks like the type of robbery you would pull off in Red Dead Redemption 2, and Dak is on the verge of getting a huge extension that will have him swimming in money ala Scrooge McDuck.
Like most things in the NFL, it is never as bad as it seems, and consequentially never as good as it seems either. Now sitting at 6-5 by virtue of a three-game winning streak, folks associated with the Cowboys are starting to puff their chests out a bit down in Frisco, Texas. That braggadocious demeanor may be short-lived, however, as MVP frontrunner Drew Brees rolls into AT&T Stadium this Thursday night.
The 10-1 Saints are riding a ten game winning streak and have been averaging 37.2 points per game. For comparison, the Cowboys have only topped 37 points one time this year. Brees is completing an otherworldly 76% of his passes while tossing 29 touchdowns to just 2 interceptions. Factor in the two-headed rushing monster of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram and this New Orleans offense appears impossible to slow down. Oh yeah, they also have a pretty decent wide receiver, Michael Thomas, you may have heard of him.
So with all of these offensive weapons, the Cowboys have no shot to win this week, right? Wrong. This is the NFL! Anything can happen on any given Sunday… or Thursday. Now, that is not to say that Dallas won’t have their hands full. They will need to execute a flawless gameplan and play their most complete game of the season to even have a shot at victory.
This is the part of the article where a bunch of stats and numbers are supposed to convince you that the Cowboys have a shot. But as usual, stats won’t tell the whole story here. On paper, the Saints have statistically the league’s best rushing defense. They have surrendered just 805 yards all year. However dig a little deeper and you will find that New Orleans has also faced the least amount of rushing attempts in the league. Teams have been down by such large margins so quickly that they are forced to abandon the ground game almost immediately.
If Dallas is going to have a shot Thursday night, it starts here. The Cowboys offensive line is going to have to dominate the trenches from the opening whistle to the end of the game. Basically, they have to play Dallas Cowboy football. This team was built to punish opposing teams on the ground and control the clock. This strategy is obviously two-fold in the sense that while the Cowboys offense is churning out yards on the ground, Brees and company are on the sideline. Tough to score 37 points on limited possessions.
On the flipside when the Cowboys defense is on the field, DeMarcus Lawrence and the self-proclaimed “Hot Boyz” will need to have their best game of the season. The front seven will need to generate consistent pressure and refuse to let Brees get comfortable. The Dallas secondary should be able to match up fairly well with these Saints receivers but give Brees enough time and there isn’t a secondary in the league he will not dissect.
Contrary to what some may believe, you don’t have to reinvent The Manhattan Project to devise a plan to beat New Orleans. Running the ball, controlling the clock, and limiting the Saints offensive possessions is the best chance teams will have to slow down that buzz saw coming out of the Bayou. Even if the Cowboys are able to execute this game plan flawlessly, they still need to take care of their own business – limit penalties, score touchdowns, not field goals, proper clock management.
While none of these tasks seem too difficult individually, it is the fact that you must execute ALL of them at the same time for sixty minutes to even have a chance at beating the Saints. Which is why they are one of the few Super Bowl favorites in the NFC.
A loss to the Saints this week wouldn’t be the end of the season for Dallas in a muddled NFC East, however, it is imperative that they at least stay competitive. The Cowboys have playoff aspirations in 2018 and if they are going to make any type of noise in the postseason, they must prove that they can hang with the big boys.
Not that it has any impact on a game nine seasons later, but let’s not forget what happened in 2009 when Dallas squared off with an undefeated Saints squad. Could history repeat itself?