Some had joked coming into this Cowboys-Saints affair that the first one to 40 points would win. Both sides featured high-powered scoring machines after all, as well as defenses that, well, have struggled at times against even the most pedestrian offenses.
And so it was probably only fitting that, indeed, the last team with the ball earned the win, Dallas putting together an unbelievable comeback, but falling short in overtime, 34-31.
The Cowboys have been living off their "next man up" philosophy this season, fighting back into playoff contention behind the contribution of backups and even backups to the backups, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. But in losing before 92,570 fans, that next man up just wasn't quite enough in the end.
Oh, they gave it their best shot, sending the game into overtime in one of the most exciting efforts of an already exciting season. The defense played valiantly, but they weren't facing the offense of the Steelers, Bengals or Eagles. The Saints came in as the third-ranked total offense in the NFL.
Perhaps in no game this year was the absence of starting inside linebackers Sean Lee and Bruce Carter felt more than in this matchup. A shortened position was then weakened even more when Ernie Sims left the game in the first quarter with dizziness after sitting out last week due to a concussion. That was later followed in the second quarter with Alex Albright getting injured, his time on the field limited throughout the rest of the game. Albright had already been moved inside from his outside linebacking spot to help fill the void.
With Dan Connor and Brady Poppinga, who wasn't even on the team a month ago, now handling most of the inside linebacker duties, Saints quarterback Drew Brees was able to take advantage, working underneath on a regular basis with dump-offs to his running backs.
New Orleans all-purpose back Darren Sproles was the primary beneficiary, finishing with 104 receiving yards on seven catches, most of those coming off short passes that he then broke loose for big gains after the catch. He also added 48 yards on nine rushes.
Likewise, fellow running back Pierre Thomas has only 16 yards on the ground on seven attempts, but totaled 61 on seven receptions, which included one touchdown. Again, most of those yards came after the catch
Of course, Brees came in as the NFL's leading passer and proved why, spreading the ball around to the tune of 437 yards in the air off 36-of-52 passing with three touchdowns and no interceptions. His main target was receiver Marques Colston, who led the team with nine catches for 144 yards.
Realistically, perhaps the only way the Cowboys could win this game was to simply outgun the Saints, Dallas' offense certainly no slouch, ranking eighth in the league coming into this matchup.
And Tony Romo gave it his best shot, going toe-to-toe with Brees, as he finished with 416 yards on 26-of-43 passing with four touchdowns and no picks. Enjoying plenty of time for much of the day, he and Dez Bryant were virtually unstoppable as the receiver set a new career high with 224 receiving yards off only nine catches, hauling in not one but two touchdown passes of 58 yards as well as a 41-yarder later in the game.
Also contributing was Jason Witten, who picked up six catches for 60 yards. With that effort, he set the NFL's single-season reception record for a tight end, his 103 grabs breaking the mark of 102, set by Tony Gonzalez.
The first quarter was all Saints as they put together two extended drives to rack up a time-of-possession difference of 12:03 to the Cowboys' 2:57. Fortunately, though, after those two series, the visitors had managed to only put up seven points.
And those came on their opening drive of the game, when they marched 80 yards in 10 plays, Brees spreading the ball around, connecting twice with Colston for a combined 27 yards before running back Mark Ingram capped the possession with a 9-yard scamper up the middle for the score and a 7-0 lead.
After Dallas' first drive stalled at the New Orleans' 43, an 8-yard sack of Romo on third-and-3 forcing a punt, the Saints got going again from their own 9-yard line. Starting with 7:28 left in the quarter, they ate up the rest of the frame, then attempted a 36-yard field goal early in the second. But Garrett Hartley's kick sailed wide left, no further damage done.
Given the gift, the Cowboys took advantage. Or more precisely, Romo and Bryant took advantage. After Murray went off left tackle for 6 yards, Romo found Bryant on the right side for a 10-yard pickup, then went right back to his receiver on the next play, Bryant streaking down the seam, past the defender for an easy 58-yard touchdown, the game evened up, 7-7
The score marked the seven straight game that Bryant has reached paydirt, the effort tying Terrell Owens, set in 2007, for the longest touchdown streak in team history.
But Dez was far from done. On the team's very next possession, Romo again connected with Bryant, this time the wideout catching it on a slant over the middle. He slipped one tackle, used a stiff arm to break another and strutted into the end zone on another 58-yard touchdown, the team's most electrifying player giving his side a 14-7 lead.
And with that highlight reel catch, Bryant made a little more history. He became the first player in franchise history, and second youngest in NFL history, with 84 catches, 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns in a season, the latter total also tying for first in the NFL.
The 14 points also marked the first time all season that the Cowboys scored more than 10 in the first half.
Unfortunately, the momentum that Dallas had gained swung back to the Saints in the final five minutes of the second quarter.
First, New Orleans came back on its next drive and went 90 yards in 12 plays and 4:32 minutes to tie the game. Dallas nearly got off the field without surrendering any points when on a fourth-and-1 at the Cowboys 23-yard line, Colston's 15-yard catch ruled incomplete after the ball came loose when he hit the ground.
But, Spencer was flagged for offsides on the play, giving the Saints a new set of downs, of which they took advantage, Brees eventually throwing a short pass to Lance Moore at the goal line for the 6-yard score.
That was followed by Dallas going three-and-out and only eating up 24 seconds of game clock, giving the Saints the ball on their own 30 with 47 seconds remaining.
It was plenty for Brees and Co., as the quarterback immediately hit Sproles out of the backfield, who broke loose for 44 yards down to the Dallas 26. After inching up to the 24, Hartley split the uprights on a 37-yard field goal as time expired to give New Orleans the lead at the break, 17-14.
The Cowboys overcame a muff by return man Dwayne Harris on the kickoff to start the third quarter, James Hanna falling on the prize, and managed to go on and even up the game. Miles Austin picked up 16 yards on a pass over the middle with Kevin Ogletree adding another 12, as Dallas moved from their own 24 across midfield.
And while the drive stalled at the New Orleans 29, Dan Bailey continued his consistency streak, kicking it through from 47 yards out, the score now 17-17.
That muff, however, was a sign of things to come. With the Dallas defense doing its part, keeping the Saints off the board on their first two possessions of the third quarter, Harris went back to field a punt, but instead of calling for a fair catch, he instead let the ball bounce, New Orleans downing it at the Cowboys 3-yard line.
Then on Dallas' very next snap, Murray took a handoff from Romo and tried to charge up the middle, only to have the ball stripped, Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton coming up with the recovery at the Cowboys 5-yard line.
Sitting on the doorstep, Brees needed three plays to get it done, but did dump a pass underneath to Thomas for the score and a 24-17 advantage, which is where it remained as the clock ticked over to the fourth quarter.
With Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware forced to the sidelines with a right shoulder strain, the Saints' lead grew to 31-17 soon thereafter. The Dallas offense was unable to make much progress, and so punted away to New Orleans, which took over at its own 2-yard line.
New Orleans went the distance anyway, the backbreaker coming on third-and-8 at the Saints 37 when Brees found Colston over the middle, safety Charlie Peprah missing a tackle that allowed the receiver to sprint 60 yards down to the Dallas 3-yard line. The next play saw Brees find tight end David Thomas wide open in the right corner of the end zone for the score and a seemingly insurmountable 31-17 advantage.
But Dallas wasn't about to give up, and once again, the Cardiac Cowboys came through, starting with Romo and Bryant. After a stellar first half, Bryant had been relatively quiet for much of the second half, but finally broke free on a second-and-2 at the Cowboys 28.
Bryant went streaking up the left seam, beating his man for a 41-yard catch down to the Saints 31. Murray then took a short pass for 15 yards before Romo found Harris at the goal line, the receiver sneaking by the pylons for the touchdown, the score narrowed to 31-24 with 3:40 left in the game.
And the Cowboys would get their chance, as the beleaguered defense forced New Orleans to punt, the Dallas offense getting the ball at its own 36-yard line after Harris redeemed himself somewhat with a 28-yard return.
Romo then threw a swing pass to Murray on the left side, the running back skipping up the sideline and across midfield to the Saints 42-yard line. That was followed two plays later by the quarterback finding Witten down the middle for 19 yards to the New Orleans 19-yard line.
With 32 seconds on the clock and one timeout remaining, after clocking the ball, Romo threw an incompletion out of bounds and then overshot Witten in the middle of the end zone, setting up fourth-and-10 with 21 seconds remaining.
And then, almost improbably, with plenty of time, Romo lofted a pass to the right corner of the end zone, where Austin broke free from his defender and cradled the offering to tie the score 31-31 with 15 seconds on the clock.
On to overtime the two would go, with Dallas winning the coin flip to take possession first. To the dismay of the home fans, though, the Cowboys were unable to advance the ball, forced to punt, and this time, the defense couldn't get the stop it so desperately needed.
Starting at their own 26, the Saints worked their way out to the Dallas 41-yard line, but then on third-and-3, Brees found tight end Jimmy Graham for seven yards to extend the drive.
Two plays later, Brees connected with Colston over the middle at the Dallas 24-yard line, who then had the ball knocked loose by cornerback Morris Claiborne. But, the ball then bounced forward, all the way to the Dallas 2-yard line, where Graham fell on it.
The play was reviewed to see if Colston had possession before the ball was knocked loose, but the ruling on the field stood. With that, Hartley came out for the 20-yard field goal, the Saints winning, 34-31.
With the loss, Dallas fell to 8-7 on the year, one game behind the NFC East-leading Redskins, who won their outing over Philadelphia to improve 9-6. But, depending on the outcome of the Giants game at Baltimore in the late afternoon contest, the Cowboys could still control their own fate.
With a Giants loss today, and a victory next Sunday at Washington, the Cowboys would win the division. If New York defeats the Ravens, then they could win the division with a win over the Eagles next week. Regardless, Dallas has to take care of business against the Redskins next week to have any chance.