Did the Dallas Cowboys look like the team that reeled off six straight victories early in the season? Certainly not.
Will they take a 27-17 win over the New Orleans Saints in their third game in 12 days and in one of the toughest places to play? You bet they will.
Desperately needing a boost of confidence after losing their last two and three of their last four, the Cowboys took care of business in New Orleans. And they did so without head coach Mike McCarthy, who was unable to make the trip after a positive COVID-19 test. Instead, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn manned the helm on the sideline.
Despite McCarthy's absence, some needed reinforcements did return for this prime-time showdown: defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who had been out since Week 1 with a broken foot, and wide receivers Amari Cooper and CeeDeee Lamb. Cooper missed the previous two games after being placed on the COVID reserve list, while Lamb had to sit out last week recovering from a concussion.
But even with their top two wideouts back, the Cowboys offense struggled to find a consistent rhythm, especially in the first half. Dak Prescott finished with 238 yards passing and both a touchdown and interception for a 79.0 passer rating.
And once again the ground game was hit and miss. Tony Pollard had a 58-yard run and Lamb a 33 yarder. But take those two rushes away and Dallas totaled just 55 yards on 22 attempts, a 2.3 yards per carry average.
Thankfully, the Cowboys defense did what needed to be done. Saints quarterback Taysom Hill threw for 264 yards and ran for another 100, but the Dallas secondary recorded four interceptions on the night to keep the damage to a minimum. As a result, the Cowboys held an opponent under 20 points for the fifth time this season.
Neither side could get much going offensively in the first quarter. After former Cowboys kicker Brett Maher missed a 56-yard field goal try, Dallas was set up with decent field position at its own 46-yard line.
The Cowboys, though, failed to get any points, passing up what would have been their own field goal of more than 50 yards to instead go for it on fourth-and-2 at the Saints' 34. But Prescott was unable to connect with an open Lamb down the middle, turning the ball over on downs.
Leave it to Cooper to get Dallas churning. Used sparingly after being activated off the Covid reserve list the day before, the star wideout jumpstarted the Cowboys with a 41-yard catch to the New Orleans 36. Three snaps later, Prescott threw what was determined to be a lateral to Lamb, who sliced through the Saints defense for a 33-yard gain.
That left it to Michael Gallup to cap things off, as he made a sensational leaping catch in the back right corner of the end zone, getting both feet down for the touchdown and a 7-0 lead. A good sign, Dallas came into this showdown having posted a 5-0 record when scoring first.
The Saints didn't waste any time tying the score, marching 75 yards in seven plays on their ensuing possession. Hill had completions of 27 and 9 yards and ran for additional 9. He then hit a wide open Lil'Jordan Humphrey on a crossing route, the receiver reaching the end zone for the 24-yard touchdown.
Dallas, however, provided the highlights over the rest of the quarter. The team responded with a 55-yard field goal to retake the lead after Prescott completed four passes to four different receivers to get into kicker Greg Zuerlein's range. That was then followed by Jayron Kearse making an outstanding toe-dragging interception at the Cowboys' 5-yard line to shut down a Saints' drive.
The 2:13 remaining in the half was, of course, plenty of time for Dallas' hurry-up offense. A pair of Saints' penalties helped the cause, but Prescott completed 9 of 10 passes for 67 yards to set Zuerlein up with a 34-yard field goal as time expired to give the Cowboys a 13-7 lead at the break.
Unfortunately, Dallas couldn't carry that momentum into the second half. Getting the ball to open the third quarter, the Cowboys went a quick three-and-out, punting to the Saints, who took over at their own 21-yard line.
Behind Hill's four runs for 42 yards, New Orleans moved down to the Dallas 24-yard line. But there the home team stalled and out came Maher for a 42-yard field goal, his kick good to narrow the Cowboys' advantage to three.
A ground game that had done little to nothing to this point, though, finally got the spark it needed. With the Cowboys facing a second-and-10 at their own 42-yard line, Pollard took a pitch from Prescott and exploded around the left end, racing down the sideline for a 58-yard touchdown. The run was the longest of his career and the longest by a Dallas rusher since Alfred Morris went 70 yards on Oct. 1, 2017 against the Rams.
Taking center stage in the final frame was the Dallas defense as two straight New Orleans punts were followed by three Cowboys interceptions. Safety Damontae Kazee grabbed his second pick of the year with cornerback Trevon Diggs then leaping to haul in his league-leading ninth interception of the season. He's now only two behind the franchise record of 11 set by Everson Walls in 1981.
The Cowboys offense couldn't do anything with the first two takeaways, so the defense decided to take matters into its own hands. And the points came from the unlikeliest of sources when defensive tackle Carlos Watkins snagged a Hill pass at the line of scrimmage and then rumbled 29 yards to the end zone for the first touchdown of his five-year career.
With a 17-point lead, the game was well in hand, although the Saints at least made things a little interesting. On their next possession, Hill through a quick slant to receiver Deonte Harris, who then broke free for a 70-yard touchdown.
But the onside kick was recovered by Dallas, and after a first down dash by Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys could run out the clock, ready for a much needed rest before playing consecutive games on the road against NFC East rivals Washington and the Giants.