ARLINGTON, Texas – There was a sense – a stifling tension in the air at AT&T Stadium – that the Cowboys were going to allow a 28-point lead to slip.
After pounding their way to an impressive 31-3 lead Sunday night against New Orleans, they allowed 14 unanswered points to the Saints. What was once a rout was one play away from becoming a one-possession game.
"We knew that they were going to come back. They're a good team. It's the NFL," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett. "You've just got to keep battling and keep fighting."
With a seemingly wide expectation of failure surrounding them, however, the Cowboys kept their cool. Their defense, which had been impressively effective all night, held the Saints to a three-and-out from their own 40. When Saints coach Sean Payton responded with a fake punt to shift the momentum, they snuffed it out.
"When they make it a 14-point game, and it's 4th-and-9 and they go for the fake, that's a huge play in that moment. I thought it was big," Garrett said.
With the fake neutralized, the Cowboys calmly followed the same gameplan that put them in control in the first place. They rode hard-running DeMarco Murray into the red zone, then finished the threat off with a well-timed touchdown pass from Tony Romo to Dez Bryant.
See photos from the Cowboys' Sunday night game against the New Orleans Saints.
"We are going to be a little tough to deal with just because of our ability to run the football," Romo said. "We have some guys on the outside that are pretty good players, as well. We are just a complete unit."
The result was a 38-17 final score that re-emphasized the dominance that the Saints' brief rally had offset. Starting with a 12-play 80-yard touchdown drive to open the evening, the Cowboys controlled the proceedings with another bruising effort from Murray and his offensive line.
Murray ran at will on a Saints rushing defense that ranked No. 8 in the league before kickoff. He averaged 6.2 yards per carry on 24 attempts, carrying Saints defenders all the way to 149 yards and two touchdowns.
"I have to give credit to the offensive line. I think we're all on the same page," Murray said.
When Murray wasn't pounding through the Saints' front, Romo continued his recent trend of effective, precise passing. His yardage total once again wasn't gaudy, at just 262 yards -- but it didn't need to be. Romo completed 76 percent of his passes, and with the defense keying on Bryant, he found Terrance Williams six times for 77 yards and two scores.
Third downs were a boon for Romo, just one year after the Cowboys went 0-of-9 on third down in New Orleans. Romo was 5-of-7 for 68 yards and a touchdown on third down – helping the Cowboys to an 8-of-14 night. He also added a career-long scramble of 21 yards on a critical third quarter third down.
"That was very important for us to see what kind of team we are going to be," Romo said. "We kind of knew, but it's nice to go up against a team we obviously struggled against last year and is still a really good football team."
Speaking of struggles, the Cowboys' success on offense was plenty related to the success of its defense. Last year against the Saints, the Cowboys famously surrendered 40 first downs and 625 yards, but they flipped that script Sunday.
Dallas limited the Saints to a mere 4-of-10 on third downs, and while Drew Brees threw for 340 yards, the vast majority of that came with the Cowboys holding a massive lead. The pass rush badgered Brees into a sack and limited him to just a few big gains with Saints receivers.
"I thought we did a great job up front [embedded_ad] pressuring the quarterback, not letting them get anything going in the run game, limiting big plays, tackled well in the secondary," Garrett said.
With the Saints effectively finished off, the defense put an exclamation point on what is likely to be called a statement win. With time winding down, Justin Durant stripped Saints running back Travaris Cadet at midfield, giving the Cowboys their third recovered turnover of the night.
If not for a premature whistle, Sterling Moore likely would have taken the recovery to the end zone for one more touchdown, but few will sweat over that disappointment. The Cowboys hadn't needed it to close the door.
"This is a pretty good football team. I think, mentally, we know that," Romo said. "I think we are excited to be able to close teams out in that situation."