NEW ORLEANS – The Saints' game plan seemed clear as Sunday night's primetime slugfest unfolded: try to force the Cowboys' high-flying offense into a grind-it-out game with limited possessions.
They succeeded inside the deafening Superdome – with the Cowboys' help.
The NFL's third-ranked offense through three games found little traction all night long, producing only one touchdown in a 12-10 loss to a feisty Saints team playing without longtime starting quarterback Drew Brees.
Credit the Saints for stalling Dallas' vaunted run game. Ezekiel Elliott rushed 18 times for only 35 yards (1.9-yard average), a week after combining with Tony Pollard (no carries Sunday) for 228 rushing yards in a dominant Week 3 win over the Dolphins.
But the Cowboys also gave away drives. Elliott and Jason Witten – the team's elder statesman and likely future Hall of Fame tight end – lamented two lost fumbles against the Saints.
First, trailing 6-3 in the second quarter, Saints linebacker A.J. Klein poked the ball away from Witten on a 16-yard catch and run into New Orleans territory at the 47.
"Terrible turnover on my part," Witten said. "I've got to be better there. It's a basic fundamental play.
"It's usually not the guy you see. It's the guy you don't see. But line one for playing tight end is catching balls over the middle and securing the catch and getting first downs. Yeah, you want run after catch, but you've got the hopes and dreams of the team in your hands."
Then, just before halftime, Elliott appeared to pick up a fourth-and-1 run to the Cowboys' 45-yard line, but Saints safety Vonn Bell poked the ball loose in the pile and recovered it. Replays showed Elliott's elbow might have been down before the fumble, but the officiating crew upheld their call.
"I just coughed it up," Elliott said. "It's not acceptable. This team relies on me in moments like that, fourth-and-1. I just can't let the team down like that.
"It doesn't really matter if my elbow was down or not. I've got to take care of the ball in that situation. The team relies on me to take care of the ball in that situation."
The Saints only scored three points off those two turnovers, and the Cowboys did get a field goal of their own after intercepting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in the first quarter.
But those were two lost drives out of nine in the entire game. And the Saints accomplished their apparent goal of chewing time off the clock, winning the time of possession battle 36:04 to 23:56.
"You play against good teams, they're going to limit your possessions," Witten said. "Turnovers -- that's why every possession is so critical. You come back and say, well, maybe it didn't cost us because we got a defensive stop, but it does because you don't get enough shots at it."
Those two mistakes aside, the Cowboys couldn't produce the same chunk plays they'd gotten in their first three games. They entered the Superdome with the fifth-most plays of at least 20 yards (16) and only got two Sunday: a 35-yard pass from Prescott to tight end Blake Jarwin that set up Elliott's 1-yard touchdown run in the third quarter to reclaim a 10-9 lead; and on the final series, a 32-yard pass to Randall Cobb before Prescott's game-ending Hail Mary interception.
"They were playing a lot of coverage and they weren't giving up those big plays, those shot plays that (offensive coordinator) Kellen (Moore) and Dak have done such a good job," Witten said.
"They were preventing that, and that's usually when we're able to get our running game going. So, it forced us in some critical third-down situations where you weren't able to extend those drives."
The offense still had chances. On their second series, Prescott just missed Cobb on an end-zone throw and they settled for a Brett Maher field goal.
"I'm not trying to get set there. I'm just trying to make that throw," Prescott said. "I've made a million throws like that on the run. That's no different."
And Cooper (five catches, 48 yards) was flagged for two offensive pass interference penalties in the game, including one on that final drive that pushed the Cowboys back to their own 16-yard line trailing by two with no timeouts and only 25 seconds left.
A frustrating night for the entire group.
"The communication (amid the noise) was fine," Prescott said, "but we didn't make enough plays to take them out of it. When you're playing in an atmosphere like this, a good team like that, you've got to do that early."