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SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

Saints no longer perfect

Cowboys end New Orleans' 13-0 run and hang on for a rare December victory.

December 20, 2009|Sam Farmer
  • New Orleans fans arenÂ’t happy with the situation as their team falls behind by three touchdowns against the Cowboys.
New Orleans fans arenÂ’t happy with the situation as their team… (Scott Halleran / Getty Images )

Reporting from New Orleans — What seemed written in the stars was rewritten by the guys wearing them.

The perfect-season bid of the New Orleans Saints was derailed Saturday by the Dallas Cowboys, a franchise that wasn't supposed to be able to win in December and certainly not against the team-of-destiny Saints and their No. 1-ranked offense.

But the Cowboys did win, picking up a huge 24-17 victory at the Superdome that tightened their grip on a playoff berth and might have been the best performance by Dallas quarterback Tony Romo.

He threw for 312 yards and a touchdown, had no turnovers, and several times used his feet to scramble out of trouble or gain crucial yards. He has never won a playoff game, true, but this was the closest thing to one.

"Everyone was talking about them, and no one was talking about us," Romo said. "And I think, as a team, that motivated us a lot. We knew coming here tonight, playing an undefeated team here in their building, that this was going to be a real tough challenge.

"We knew coming in the significance of the game -- that they were undefeated and chasing history. So for us, this one feels real, real good."

It was the first December win in five tries for the Cowboys (9-5), who have matched the win total of NFC East-leading Philadelphia and are 1 1/2 games ahead of the New York Giants for the last wild-card spot.

While the Saints were chasing history, the Cowboys were chasing New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees -- and getting to him. The home team's offensive line was utterly overwhelmed, caving in down after down as outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer crashed in from the edges. Each recorded two sacks.

"Early on, we contained it pretty well," said Brees, whose last-gasp drive ended at midfield in the final 10 seconds when Ware sacked him and -- for the second time -- stripped loose the ball.

"Unfortunately, when you get down, they can pin their ears back and not worry about the run at all."

The performance could have implications beyond the win-loss record for Brees. He was in a tight race with Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning for most-valuable-player honors. Two nights after three-time MVP Manning led his team back in the fourth quarter, Brees failed to do so. That could tip the scales.

There was plenty of blame to go around. The Saints dropped a lot of passes -- including a sure touchdown -- and left tackle Jermon Bushrod could barely slow Ware, let alone stop him.

As their fans roared so loud the Superdome seemed to sway, however, the Saints still looked as if they might pull off a comeback for the ages. Trailing after three quarters, 24-3, they began the fourth with touchdowns on consecutive drives.

It almost seemed scripted when, with 2:16 to play, Cowboys kicker Nick Folk clanked a 24-yard field goal attempt off the right upright.

"We walked out on that field, just down seven . . . " Brees said. "We felt like there was no doubt we were going to score and it was going to go to [overtime]."

That's when the Cowboys sent a unmistakable message: there's no perfection without protection. Ware, Spencer and the rest of the defensive front slammed shut the door.

The performance was especially impressive by Ware, considering it came six days after he was wheeled off the field on a stretcher in a home game against San Diego. No one outside the team knew whether he'd be able to play against the Saints, and Ware had to pass a physical exam by team doctors Saturday before he got the go-ahead.

Ware said he and others on the team got a little extra motivation after watching a tape -- provided by Coach Wade Phillips -- of NBC analyst (and former NFL coach) Tony Dungy essentially ruling out a Cowboys victory.

"When somebody says that you can't do something and counts you out before you even play, that puts gas on the fire," Ware said. "Once we watched that tape and went to bed that night, it marinated in our heads."

Before the game, the Cowboys' locker room was probably the only quiet place under the rollicking dome.

"There was no music . . . no speeches, anything," Ware said. "Even when we did the team prayer before the game, guys didn't say anything. It was just guys getting ready."

Better to start quiet, of course, than to end up that way.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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