December 2009 was familiar territory for me and other Dallas Cowboys fans. With a chance to control their own destiny, the Cowboys let slip the reins of destiny like a greasy hand grabbing a glass doorknob. For me, I was headed back to Ohio to visit the Brunette, despite the consequences of last year’s ignominious encounter.
There were a lot of similarities betwixt the Brunette and the Dallas Cowboys: they were both teases, and I was willfully putting myself in positions to where I would go home disappointed. Take a look at what the Cowboys did the past two weeks. They lost to the Giants on the road by 7 points and fell to 8-4 on the year. Then, they lost to the Chargers by 3 points at home in a game where defensive superstar DeMarcus Ware left the field strapped to a backboard and loaded into an ambulance.
So at 8-5 and missing their leading sacker, the Dallas Cowboys were doomed to an 8-8 finish and possibly the firing of head coach Wade Phillips. How could he survive another off-season when he followed up the 44-6 2008 finale with a presumed 8-8 finish?
It was a foregone conclusion the 13-0 Saints would demolish the Cowboys. Yes, the Saints had trouble defeating the Redskins and Falcons in previous weeks, doing so only by a margin of 3 points in each game. But they were 13-0 and playing at home against a regional rival. Tony Dungy, analyst for NBC Sports and former NFL head coach, said the Dallas Cowboys had, “no chance” when previewing the game on Sunday, December 13th’s broadcast of NBC’s Football Night in America.
I had no chance either with the Brunette, but life is about taking chances and following events to their conclusions. Who knows what could happen?
Well, in my case, I wasn’t going to be trapped with the Brunette without a way to catch the Cowboys game. So, I made arrangements to go visit my sister and her husband and watch the game on their high definition television while visiting with a close mutual friend. We had just finished watching Stardust when I promptly inquired if the TV could be switched to NFL Network.
The Dallas Cowboys began their first drive of the game, which was the second total drive of the game. The Saints had gone three-and-out; not the Cowboys. In five plays, thanks to a 49-yard Miles Austin touchdown on a go route, the Dallas Cowboys were up 7-0 in the Superdome.
Well, you know, that’s beginner’s luck. Perhaps there was even a busted coverage, because everyone knew Miles Austin was the only receiver the Cowboys truly had. Drew Brees and the offense wouldn’t stand for that. After all, he shouts in the pregame huddle, which is obvious signs of leadership. And in the pregame huddle, he also said, “Let’s show them who’s the real America’s Team!” So you just knew Drew Brees wasn’t going to stand for that.
Three-and-out. Ball to the Cowboys. Eight plays later, Marion Barber waltzes in for a touchdown to put the Cowboys up 14-0 in the Superdome.
This couldn’t be explained away by busted coverages. The Cowboys ran Marion Barber four times, gaining 16 yards total. They pounded the rock. They used the run to set up big passes to Roy Williams for 14 yards and Miles Austin for 26 yards. They ran the ball for a score. The Cowboys offense had come marching in.
On the Saints’ third drive, runningback Reggie Bush busted off a 29-yard gain on the left side. After that, reserve runningback Mike Bell gained nothing, linebacker Anthony Spencer sacked Drew Brees, and Brees threw a third down incompletion.
New Orleans punter Thomas Morstead backed the Cowboys up to their own 8 yard line, but the Cowboys went on a 12-play, 60-yard drive that stalled out thanks to two sacks by defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Jonathan Vilma inside the Saints 40. Dallas backed up the Saints at their own 9 after punter Mat McBriar booted away the football.
Dallas needed all the yards they could get. Just imagine if the Cowboys allowed the Saints offense to start at their own 25 or further. Why, they might have scored a touchdown instead of attempting a Garrett Hartley field goal from Dallas’ 16 yard line. Hartley nailed it to cut the deficit to 11 — 14-3 Cowboys.
Dallas wasn’t able to do much with the ensuing possession except get a holding penalty and punt away the football. Drew Brees fired strikes to Marques Colston (12 yards), Reggie Bush (16 yards), David Thomas (11 yards) and Robert Meachem (15 yards) to move to the Dallas 41. This close to the goal, Drew Brees took a shot downfield for Devery Henderson in the same spot Romo found Austin for a touchdown. Could it work for the Saints’ #9?
Mike Jenkins was having a career year in 2009. The second-year cornerback just seemed to have a playmaking knack. Here in their own territory, the Cowboys needed a play, and the dreadlocked defensive back picked off the pass for Henderson. Henderson downed Jenkins at the Cowboys 4.
The chief accomplishment of the Cowboys drive was getting out of the shadow of their own goal post. Rather than punting from their own 4, they punted from their own 21 and took the first half’s remaining time to 1:22 until halftime.
A holding penalty set the Saints back ten yards, but they got nearly all of it back with receiver Robert Meachem making a 7-yard grab. On 2nd and 13, Brees dropped back and surveyed the field. He knew where Spencer was, and he wasn’t getting to him. Neither was that backup Victor Butler.
Around the left side charged DeMarcus Ware. With a ferocious swipe of his Warewolf paw, the football rolled around on the Superdome turf like a penny spinning on a city sidewalk before linebacker Anthony Spencer fell on the football to reclaim Cowboys possession at the Saints 24.
Dallas ran 5 plays with 45 seconds left. The final one was an illegal hands to the face committed by Flozell Adams. Dallas settled for a 44-yard field goal that Nick Folk nailed through the uprights to give Dallas a 17-3 halftime advantage over the undefeated Saints.
Wow. Was this the real life?
The great thing was Dallas would get the ball back to start the second half. They took their sweet time with a 13-play drive that featured Cowboys rookies, undrafted receiver Kevin Ogletree and tight end John Phillips, coming up with key grabs to keep the drive alive. On the 13th play from the 2 yard line on 2nd and 2, Marion Barber fought his way for a touchdown to give the Cowboys a 24-3 edge in the Superdome.
The Cowboys didn’t add to their lead any, and the Saints didn’t make any threats to chisle it during the third quarter. On their first drive of the fourth quarter, which was preceded by two plays in the third quarter’s final minute, Drew Brees drove the Saints down to 1st and goal at the Cowboys 8. In two plays, Mike Bell busted through for a touchdown to make it 24-10 Cowboys.
NFL fans had seen this previously. During Week 7, the Saints fell early to the Dolphins in Miami only to come back for a big win. Could it be happening again?
Dallas went three-and-out on the next series. About the only accomplishment they had was they made New Orleans waste a timeout before punting it away.
Drew Brees marched the Saints efficiently down the field in 7 plays, hitting receiver Lance Moore for a 7-yard touchdown to make it 24-17 Cowboys.
With exactly 8:00 left, Dallas had the best drive you could possibly want for taking time off the clock and down near the 2:00 Warning — well, if you like settling for field goals, and if you like your erratic kicker to miss a 24-yard chip shot field goal.
New Orleans had the ball at their own 20 and two time stoppages: their final timeout and the 2:00 Warning. Brees was making progress too at moving the ball. There was one scare: a 4th and 10 from their own 20, but Marques Colston gained 14 to keep the drive alive. Five plays later, Devery Henderson caught a 13-yard ball to set up shop at the Cowboys 42. Drew Brees hustled to spike the ball with 12 seconds in regulation.
Dallas needed a big play, and one of the men with the biggest hearts bull-rushed the Saints’ left tackle and had a clean shot to Brees’ blindside. Rather than pulverizing the undersized signal caller, Ware swung his right arm for the ball, stripping Brees. Defensive tackle Jay Ratliff fell on the ball to seal the 24-17 Dallas victory.
Somewhere in Miami, the ’72 Dolphins poured champaign bottles.
Dallas did the improbable and defeated a 13-0 team in their own barn. Dallas special teams coordinator played Dungy’s words for his team to hear, and it gave them inspiration, as did DeMarcus Ware’s game time decision to play. Ware’s presence electrified the Cowboys.
The next two games, Dallas shutout the Redskins and Eagles, becoming the first Dallas team ever to post consecutive shutouts. In the playoffs, they squashed the Eagles 34-14 to earn their first playoff win in 13 years.
Four years later, it seems like 13 years ago the Cowboys ever had that much swagger to behead a formidable opponent. Though 6-2 and not 13-0, the Saints are nevertheless dangerous in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where head coach Sean Payton has not lost a game since Week 17 of 2010. Dallas is going to have to recall the passion that culminated in such heroics. They need to be those old Cowboys and not the same old Cowboys this Sunday night.