By Matthew Postins
At some point you have to wonder how many lives the Dallas Cowboys have left.
Perhaps the Cowboys finally started running out of lives against the New Orleans Saints.
Down 14 points the Cowboys did what they’ve done during this entire run – rally for an improbable victory. This one was probably the most improbable, as the touchdown reception to tie the game by wide receiver Miles Austin came after he had dropped a couple of passes earlier in the game.
But then came overtime. The Cowboys were unable to move the chains and had to punt. Then Saints quarterback Drew Brees completed a pass to Marques Colston. Dallas cornerback Morris Claiborne forced a fumble and the ball rolled to the Cowboys 2, where the Saints’ Jimmy Graham recovered.
Sometimes that’s how it goes in the NFL. Of course, the Cowboys’ playoff hopes aren’t done yet. But they no longer control their own destiny. Unless the New York Giants lose to the Baltimore Ravens later on Sunday afternoon.
Here’s how it all broke down.
Run Offense: What run offense? The Cowboys ran away from running on the second-worst rushing defense in the NFL like the Saints’ front four had leprosy. DeMarco Murray ran the ball 11 times for 40 yards, despite the fact that every first-half carry was effective. It was as if head coach Jason Garrett just disregarded the matchup. Garrett did this earlier this season in games against Seattle and Tampa Bay where he just stopped running the football despite effective gains. It’s the most troublesome part of his game plan from Sunday. Of course, Murray’s fumble in the third quarter changed the momentum of the game and led to putting the Cowboys in a 14-point hole. At that point running the football was no help.
Pass Offense: Quarterback Tony Romo had a huge game and made few mistakes. He made a living off the back shoulder pass in the fourth quarter, helping the Cowboys score both times using that pass. He didn’t commit a turnover and stayed on his feet most of the game, thanks to a Cowboys line that handled the Saints’ front four most of the contest. Wide receiver Dez Bryant was equally on target, catching two 58-yard touchdown passes and setting a career high for receiving yardage. Tight end Jason Witten broke the single-season NFL record for receptions by a tight end. Austin found some redemption with the game-tying touchdown reception. Wide receiver Dwayne Harris even got in the act with his first NFL receiving touchdown, which pulled the Cowboys within seven. But the middle of this game was a malaise for Dallas. The Cowboys were unable to put together consistent drives for much of the second and third quarters. Romo had trouble finding Bryant after his back-to-back touchdown receptions, even after the Saints’ best cover corner, Jabari Greer, left the game. The Cowboys were 2-of-10 on third down conversions, most of them being passes. That was the single biggest issue on offense for Dallas on Sunday and the failure was all about execution, not play calling.
Run Defense: You don’t really expect the Saints to beat you running the football, and they didn’t on Sunday. But the Saints did have the better ground game, gaining 116 total yards and averaging 3.1 yards per carry. The average wasn’t pretty, but the Saints set a tone early by running for a touchdown with Mark Ingram on great interior blocking. The Saints ran the ball 38 times against Dallas and the Cowboys had to respect it. Still, the Saints didn’t break many for long gains, thanks to the play of nose tackle Sean Lissemore and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher.
Pass Defense: The Cowboys used the same approach on defense that they did last week against Pittsburgh. They rushed four or five players and kept the rest back to prevent big plays. The difference was the sheer amount of weapons the Saints had and the expert command Brees had of all of them. From the start Brees noticed Dallas’ inability to pick up running backs coming out of the backfield on screens and made the Cowboys pay. Darren Sproles (7 catches, 104 yards) and Pierre Thomas (7 catches, 61 yards, TD) had huge games. They wore out the Cowboys’ linebackers with those plays, and the injuries to Ernie Sims (concussion) and Alex Albright (knee) hurt all the more. The Saints were terrific on third down, going 11-of-19 and holding the football for nearly 42 minutes. Still, Dallas did some good things. Linebacker Brady Popping and cornerback Morris Claiborne both broke up passes that could have kept drives alive. Cornerback Mike Jenkins stood up Saints wide receiver Marques Colston on a third down, forcing a punt and leading to the game-tying score. The Cowboys, led by Hatcher, put some good pressure on Brees, even though it didn’t lead to a sack. Along with the third-down conversions, the Cowboys were unable to force Brees into a mistake. That’s not easy to do, but the Cowboys defense, for the first time in several weeks, lacked that game-changing defensive play that turned the contest in Dallas’ favor. It was an uneven effort against the Saints’ passing game.
Special Teams: Dwayne Harris had an off game, fumbling the opening kickoff of the second half. He allowed a punt that he should have fielded to drop at the Dallas 3. A few plays later Murray fumbled. Harris also nearly touched a punt that was on the ground that would have led to a turnover, but it had already been ruled a touchback. Harris redeemed himself with a 29-yard punt return to kick-start the game-tying drive. Punter Brian Moorman and kicker Dan Bailey had great afternoons. The Cowboys coverage units didn’t allow any big plays.
Coaching: Garrett’s decision to thrown the ball three straight times with less than two minutes deep in their own territory late in the first half led to a three and out and a Saints field goal. It was one of those situations where Garrett just has to take the tie game at the half. He did smartly hold on to his two time outs as the clock rolled down to the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter, recognizing that the Saints had to call a play. Garrett did a nice job overall in terms of play calling, though his lack of reliance on running the ball against the Saints was astonishing. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan did what he could against one of the NFL’s true maestros in Brees. The scheme was fine. The pass rush was solid. But their inability to get the Saints off the field on third down was a matter of his linebackers being unable to adjust to those underneath routes that bugged the Cowboys all day.
Injuries: Cowboys LB Ernie Sims went back to the sideline after dizziness in the first quarter and did not return. LB Alex Albright left the game in the second quarter with an apparent knee injury. He returned in the second half. Saints DB Jabari Green left the game in the second quarter with a possible concussion. He did not return. Cowboys LB DeMarcus Ware left the game in the fourth quarter with a strained shoulder. He did not return.
Inactives: For New Orleans, RB Chris Ivory, FB Jed Collins, OLB Scott Shanle, DE Tyrunn Walker, DE Turk McBride. For Dallas, LB Kyle Wilber, NT Jay Ratliff, DT Rob Callaway.
Record Books: Witten now has 103 receptions this season, which breaks Tony Gonzalez’s NFL record for most receptions by a tight end in a single season. Bryant’s 224 yards receiving was a career high. His 12 touchdown receptions are three off the franchise record for a single season, set by Terrell Owens in 2007. Romo, with 4,685 yards passing, broke his own single-season franchise record for most passing yards in a season (4,483).