On one hand, this week’s Thanksgiving matchup between the Cowboys and Saints is nothing like last year’s meeting between the two teams. On the other hand, it’s eerily similar. Allow me to elaborate. Last year, the Cowboys traveled to the Superdome in Week 15 following a two-game skid and needing to win the NFC East and ensure a playoff berth. The two previous losses had left Dallas fans thinking their favorite team was going to choke down the stretch for the second straight year. After all, the Saints were 13-0 heading into the contest with a prolific offense that seemed unstoppable. Before the game, Cowboys radio color commentator Babe Laufenberg even said he didn’t think the Cowboys had a chance. However, Dallas pulled off the upset and won out to clinch its third division title in four years. This year, winning out is highly unlikely and a playoff berth is almost impossible for America’s Team, but the roles are almost identical. The difference is the pressure is on the Saints because Dallas is riding a two-game winning streak under new interim head coach Jason Garrett. I have a feeling we’re in for another wild ride.
The Cowboys have won four straight on Thanksgiving and Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw five touchdowns in his only start at Dallas. Like my father always says, none of that matters at all today. So true, Pop, but it’s fun for writers like me to throw around. The here and now is the Saints boast the NFL’s 5th-best offense 3rd-best passing attack. After a shocking loss to Cleveland in Week 7, New Orleans is riding a three-game winning streak. Especially over those three games, the Saints’ offense has resembled that of their Super Bowl-winning team last season. After beginning the season terribly, the Cowboys’ defense has slowly but surely risen from the bottom of the barrel to 22nd. Brees has seemed to find a groove with his receivers in recent weeks, so Dallas’ 21st-ranked pass defense will need to play like it has the past two games, both wins that included big plays from rookie defensive back Bryan McCann. The Cowboys have still given up a good chunk of yards to opposing offenses, but guys like McCann have made big plays in critical situations to keep them out of the end zone. That will be a critical factor in Thanksgiving’s game.
Dallas quarterback Jon Kitna has played spectacular during the Cowboys’ current two-game winning streak, throwing for a combined 474 yards, six touchdowns, and only one interception. The real key in Dallas’ sudden success is Garrett’s change of heart in the play calling. Since his promotion, Garrett has abruptly changed from his pass happy ways and begun using the Cowboys’ talented trio of running backs. The result is two consecutive 100-yard rushing days by the Boys and more running than pass plays. That philosophy will be crucial this week against the Saints’ 4th-best defense. With the NFL’s 2nd-best pass defense somewhere in there, it will be on the Dallas running game to keep the New Orleans defense honest and make sure Kitna has the time and opportunities to throw the ball.
The Saints are still waiting for the full return of running backs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas, who have both missed a majority of the season with injuries. Chris Ivory has filled in decently in their absence, but if Dallas linebackers Keith Brooking and Bradie James can contain him, defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni can focus his unit on stopping Brees. One thing is for sure; Cowboys Stadium will be packed and the entire nation will be watching to see if Garrett can prove himself and earn the permanent head coaching job. To do that, Garrett will have to beat his mentor and hero in New Orleans head coach Sean Payton. Payton was once a coordinator who has taken one of the NFL’s worst franchises to its first Super Bowl title. Now the roles are reversed and Garrett is looking to establish himself as an elite NFL coach. Hang on to your turkey and dressing, folks! My prediction: Saints 31, Cowboys 28.