ARLINGTON, Texas – A week ago, the Cowboys had beaten the St. Louis Rams, 34-31, to move to 2-1. They had won two games in a row for the first time in seven games. They had matched the franchise's largest comeback to win a game, 21 points.
Finally a ray of sunshine.
But defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli wasn't happy. His defense gave up 24 of those points, along with 448 yards of offense. Rams quarterback Austin Davis threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns. The Cowboys did not sack the rookie a single time. Rarely even disturbed him in the pocket.
Plus, Marinelli didn't want anyone to forget last year's game against the Saints, who put up 49 points against the Cowboys, totaled an NFL record 40 first downs and allowed quarterback Drew Brees to throw for 392 without even an attempt in the fourth quarter.
Or as Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said, "It was embarrassing last year to no end."
So Marinelli got on his defense all week. He has a way with words, which should not be confused with speaking eloquently. He got their attention.
"Coach Marinelli called everyone out this week," Cowboys safety and defensive co-captain Barry Church pointed out, and if some of his outbursts during training camp practices are any indication, guarantee you he got his message out there loud and clear. "He said we were too soft against St. Louis.
"And the last thing you want is to be called soft by any man. We wanted to go out and hit."
Brother, hit these Saints they did, left and right, and when the Saints are from New Orleans that is no sin, first kneeling on their necks, then kneeling with the ball at the end, leaving Saints head coach Sean Payton, the former Cowboys assistant, no other choice other than to rush onto the field, shake hands with Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, the guy he convinced to sign with the Cowboys as a rookie free agent 11 years ago, and slap his fellow Eastern Illinois alum on the shoulder pads.
Just what we figured, right? Cowboys 38, Saints 17.
The Cowboys winning three straight for the first time since 2012.
The Cowboys 3-1 for the first time since 2008.
The Cowboys beating the Saints for only the second time in the last 10 meetings on this Sunday in front of 91,176 at an AT&T Stadium overrun with Who-Dat-ing Saints fans instead leaving into the night muttering to themselves, "Who dat beat 'dem Saints?"
The Cowboys taking down the Saints at home for the first time since 1991, back in Texas Stadium in what turned out to be the final game I covered for the now defunct Dallas Times Herald, which went out of business the very next day. Seemingly a lifetime ago.
The Cowboys tied for first in the NFC East at the quarter pole with that 3-1 record, winning a game likely only those with True Blue blood running through their veins thought possible, causing cornerback Brandon Carr to cautiously point out, "3-1 in the first quarter (of the season) is pretty good, but the first quarter is over."
He might have added, finished that first quarter of the season in grand style, defeating an opponent by at least 21 points for only the third time in the past 46 games.
Give this question some thought the day after:
When was the last time you heard the Dallas Cowboys were more physical than … ?
Go ahead, try filling in the blank. Will cause you to scratch your head, search the inner reaches of your mind.
And I mean physical. Not sure that adjective has been used to describe a Cowboys team this century, which is somewhat frightening since we're now 15 years in. Finesse, maybe. Offensively- or defensively-challenged at times. Pass-happy comes to mind. So does porous and historically bad, as were used time and again last season.
But physical? Really?
"Coach Marinelli said if you just come up and hit those receivers when we're playing zone, they will develop alligator arms and not want to come over the middle," Church said.
Hit the Cowboys did, evidenced by nine passes broken up, many because of how physical Dallas was treating intended Saints receivers. Hit the Cowboys did, evidenced by two recovered fumbles. Hit the Cowboys did, evidenced by shutting out New Orleans in the first half, 24-zip, only the third time that's happened since Payton took over the Saints in 2006 and the first since 2011.
Hit so well and accurately, those Saints who made mincemeat out of the Cowboys defense last year managed only seven first-half first downs, and two of those by penalty. They totaled only 114 yards through two quarters and quarterback Drew Brees, who torched the Cowboys for a combined 838 passing yards and seven touchdowns the past two seasons, had just 84 yards passing and was even picked off once, the first time the Cowboys have done that in three games.
Hard to believe, wasn't it? Cowboys 24, Saints nada at halftime. Talk about taking those ticket-buying Saints fans' money and then shutting them up in a hurry.
"Obviously we struggled in all areas," Payton said of his 1-3 team that now has lost nine of its past 11 road games, including going 1-1 in the playoffs last year.
*Playoffs? *Yep, how fitting, former Saints coach Jim Mora, who uttered that famous word while with the Colts after a frustrating loss, was here, and someone actually asked Payton about the playoffs, causing him to much more calmly say, "I don't think we discuss playoffs at 1-3."
"First off, you credit Dallas," Payton continued. "I thought they played winning football in all three phases. We struggled offensively, defensively, kicking game, coaching. There's not much good to see on this film.
"You get in those games and clearly the better team won tonight."
Better offensively, for sure, too, the phase these burgeoning Cowboys imparted their will on the Saints. My gosh, Dallas ran for 190 yards, the fourth straight game rushing for more than 100. The NFL's leading rusher – and by a lot after four games – DeMarco Murray went for 149, his fourth consecutive 100-yard game, and ran two of his 24 carries into the end zone from afar, first his 15-yard touchdown run twice as long as any he had all of last year and then the 28-yarder to give the Cowboys a 31-3 third-quarter lead, the team's longest since Murray's 91-yard TD run against the Rams in 2011. [embedded_ad]
But those were the Rams, dude, not the Saints, the team that crushed the Cowboys last year on their way to an 11-5 record and a first-round playoff victory. This was Rob Ryan running the New Orleans defense, the guy credited with working miracles last year with a previously poor Saints defense after the Cowboys couldn't qualify gong any further with him as their own defensive coordinator.
Yeah, right. Miracle this. The Cowboys offensive line mashed the Saints. The tight ends, especially Jason Witten, added a helping hand blocking. And there was Dez Bryant, tired of hearing how Dwayne Harris is the team's best blocking wide receiver – and he is – laying some wood on outside running plays.
And when the Saints figured they'd had enough of all this running stuff, crowding the line of scrimmage with eight, sometimes nine guys, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who by the way very quietly and ultra-efficiently finished with a 137.4 passer rating, hammered them in the air: 22 of 29 for 262 passing yards, three touchdowns, no picks.
Six of those completions and two of those touchdown passes went to Terrance Williams since Ryan figured if he stopped Bryant he could stop the Cowboys passing attack. Well, better think again big guy, since Williams, with Dez in constant double coverage, confounded them with six catches for 77 yards. Why, the Cowboys had six receivers with double-digit receiving yards, and while Dez might have been a complementary piece in this game, as he said, he was "the dagger" in the end with an 18-yard touchdown grab of his own after the Saints pulled within two possessions in the fourth quarter.
"We've been talking about it for a long time," Witten said of the Cowboys physical play. "We're really trying to establish our identity as a physical football team behind that offensive line.
"I thought today was our most complete game."
Certainly the Saints will second 'dat.