NEW ORLEANS -- The Dallas Cowboys grabbed an evasive December victory over the previously unbeaten Saints on Saturday night. The long-sought win at the most important time of the season -- finally -- set in motion a chain of events that could have wide-ranging effects throughout the NFC playoff race and the Cowboys' franchise itself.
Most notably, the Cowboys handled their business. This was a game they weren't supposed to win, not necessarily because of their inability to do what they routinely needed to do, this being December and all. The Saints simply were better. They were unbeaten and in their home dome, which is far less glamorous than the new Cowboys Stadium but far more intimidating to visitors and accommodating to the home team.
Yet Dallas put it on New Orleans. Even though the Cowboys won 24-17, it was a pretty thorough romp over the Saints, who couldn't get their offense going until late and couldn't get their defense stabilized until it was too late, and now the once-historic run at 16-0 could end up with New Orleans losing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, courtesy of Dallas.
More meaningful, though, is that Dallas thrust itself firmly back into the playoff hunt and the NFC East championship chase. With one resounding win, all indications are that the regular-season finale between the Cowboys (9-5) and the division-leading Philadelphia Eagles (9-4) -- a game to be played in Dallas -- could determine the NFC East winner, with the loser receiving a wild-card berth or not going to the playoffs at all.
Dallas plays at Washington next week, and it's no guarantee that the Cowboys will follow their impressive handling of the Saints with another win over the Redskins to reach 10 victories heading into Week 17 against the Eagles. Washington is a team that no one really wants to play, and Dallas' recent history when it has to win this late in the season remains rather dubious.
The Eagles must face a dangerous San Francisco 49ers team Sunday and then the Denver Broncos, a likely AFC playoff team, before traveling to Dallas. And by that time, the Eagles could be staring up at the Cowboys.
The New York Giants are very much in the equation, too. They play at Washington on Monday night, then face the Carolina Panthers. The Giants' regular-season finale is against the Minnesota Vikings, who could be resting players as they cruise into the playoffs.
Then again, the Vikings might go all out against the Giants because they could be playing for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Though Minnesota has two losses, just one came to an NFC team (the Arizona Cardinals). The Vikings and Saints are even in that department. Should Minnesota win out and New Orleans, which has clinched the NFC South, happen to lose one of its final two games to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the Panthers, the Vikings would hold the home-field edge because of a better conference record.
See what Dallas' win set in motion?
The Green Bay Packers will nab one NFC wild-card spot, and the other will come from the East. That alone will keep things interesting for the next two weeks.
If the Cowboys can be credited for one thing pretty much every year, it's their knack for taking us to the regular season's final breath. And what if it's a do-or-die game with the Eagles again, one year after Dallas mainlined Hemlock in Philadelphia and was blown out 44-6 in the final week to miss the playoffs and allowed the Eagles to take their place? Man, oh, man.
The win over New Orleans set the table for all that.
It also made things a lot more complicated to continue to call for Cowboys coach Wade Phillips' head -- at least for a week. A fast-moving current of chatter flowed Saturday night before kickoff that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones might try to beat the Redskins to Mike Shanahan should Dallas fall to New Orleans. Of course, Jones still could position things for a leadership change, but how could he justify it if Dallas keeps winning? You can't script this stuff.
What makes Phillips' argument to keep his job even stronger -- again, for a week -- is that he stood by his players amid recurring criticism of their December failures, and, for once, they had his back. The Cowboys came to New Orleans on a mission, and in a matter of minutes, they staked their claim. The defense -- Phillips' pride and joy -- snuffed out the Saints' opening drive. The offense then hung seven quick points on a 49-yard pass from Tony Romo to Miles Austin.
Things didn't change much from that point. And back to Phillips' defense, it held the Saints to a season-low 17 points, nearly 20 below their average.
Although the Saints charged back in the fourth quarter and Nick Folk gave them a chance to tie (he could end up costing the Cowboys and Phillips everything because he's so shaky) when he missed what basically was an extra point (a 24-yard field-goal attempt) with just more than two minutes remaining, linebacker DeMarcus Ware and Dallas' defense made another round of plays against New Orleans' mighty offense.
Now to Romo. Even if Dallas doesn't win another game and misses the playoffs, it will be hard for the quarterback to be the target of blame this time. He lit up New Orleans' vulnerable secondary (312 passing yards), which doesn't put him in exclusive company. But he didn't turn over the ball against the NFL's top takeaway defense. He has thrown just seven interceptions this season, and his decision-making, leadership and play-making skills are vastly improved.
On the touchdown pass to Austin, Romo recognized at the line of scrimmage that the Saints had rookie Malcolm Jenkins on Austin in man coverage. Austin ran a double-move, Romo pump faked and got Jenkins to bite, and that was that. It was as well executed a play as you could ask for, and that was just the first of many.