ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys delivered a crucial message in a season where offenses have run rampant in the NFL: Defense still matters.
It might not be as sexy as high-scoring shootouts. It surely won't make fantasy football owners feel better about their own circumstances. However, it can keep a team like Dallas viable, especially when postseason dreams are hanging in the balance.
The biggest surprise in the Cowboys' 13-10 win over the New Orleans Saints wasn't that Dallas pulled the upset. It was that Dallas made the prolific Saints offense look so feeble at a time when New Orleans has been seemingly unstoppable. The Saints came into Thursday night averaging a league-high 37.2 points per game and riding a 10-game winning streak. They left with a very clear understanding that Dallas is starting to find its own rhythm at an incredibly optimal time.
After languishing at 3-5 a few weeks ago, the Cowboys have now won four straight games of their own. Their defense, as was the case on Thursday after cornerback Jourdan Lewis clinched the game with a fourth-quarter interception of Saints quarterback Drew Brees, has been a huge factor in that recent success.
"That defense was fun to watch," Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott said. "Just to be on that sideline and see those guys flying around -- Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon (Smith) making big hits, Anthony Brown back there. Just that whole defense. You see a defense like that -- with guys subbing in and out and everybody making big plays -- it just gives you a lot of confidence in your team."
It's been no secret that Dallas has fielded a tough defense all season. The Cowboys ranked in the top 10 in three major categories before Thursday night's game, including points allowed (third), rushing yards allowed (fifth) and total yards allowed (seventh). They have disruptive pass rushers, active linebackers and the kind of chemistry that makes it hard on opponents to find a rhythm. Over its previous three games, Dallas hadn't allowed anybody to score more than 23 points.
Now compare that to what the Saints were doing. They had been averaging nearly 44 points per game over their last four victories, a stretch that included a 45-35 win over the Los Angeles Rams and a 48-7 thrashing of the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. The Saints weren't just winning. They were destroying any doubts of which team was the best in the NFL.
That's why this win meant so much to Dallas. It was a validation of the work it's put into this past month, evidence that this team really does have the chops to make serious noise in December and January. The Cowboys definitely don't have the kind of firepower that we've seen from the Saints and Rams throughout the season. What Thursday night proved is that Dallas really doesn't need it.
There's been so much scrutiny placed on the Cowboys' offensive struggles -- particularly those of Prescott -- that it's been easy to overlook that their defense can carry them to the playoffs.
"Obviously, that's a really good offensive football team that we played and I thought we did a good job of slowing them down," said Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, whose team improved to 7-5. "We defended the run really well. They're at their best when they're balanced and we did a good job of getting around the quarterback and contesting the plays down the field. They got a couple of them, but I thought our guys covered really well and made it hard on them."
The final numbers were startling, especially when considering what the Saints had been producing every week. They only gained 176 total yards. They converted just three of 11 third-down opportunities. They also couldn't generate a yard on a fourth-down play from the Dallas 1-yard line early in the second quarter, as the Cowboys stuffed Saints running back Alvin Kamara for no gain on that play.
That goal-line stand would be a strong indication of the type of night Dallas was destined to have. The Cowboys' defenders shut down every dangerous weapon the Saints possessed, whether it was stifling the backfield tandem of Kamara and Mark Ingram (who combined for 65 rushing yards), containing Pro Bowl wide receiver Michael Thomas (five receptions for 40 yards) or frustrating Brees, whose NFL Most Valuable Player award candidacy took a serious hit after he threw for 127 yards and tossed that errant pass to Lewis with 2:08 left in the game.
The Saints, a team that had generated at least 40 points six times already this season, couldn't even score in the first half.
"We weren't really good on the early downs," said Saints head coach Sean Payton, whose team fell to 10-2. "We didn't have the balance that we've had in prior games. We struggled running the ball with any consistency. And then we didn't want to get into a one-dimensional game. I think the common thread, without seeing any of the game tape, would be that we were behind the chains a lot."
"I don't think we really had any specific plan," Cowboys safety Jeff Heath said. "It was just kind of go out there, do our stuff and execute. We thought that we could stick with their receivers and get after (Brees). We needed to stop the run game and try to make him one-dimensional and we were able to do so."
The Cowboys did get enough help from their offense to pull out this victory. Prescott continued to play with the same efficiency he's shown over the last month (he completed 24 of 28 passes for 248 yards and a touchdown). The running game was effective enough to give the defense vital rest, with Ezekiel Elliott gaining 76 yards on 23 carries. It was a much different script than we've been used to seeing in Dallas in recent years, but there's something appealing about it, as well.
Dallas has known for the last three years that most of its championship hopes revolve around Prescott and Elliott playing at a high level. It wasn't until this season that the Cowboys possessed a defense capable of carrying this team to loftier heights. The Cowboys defense has become so dominant that Pro Bowl defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence talked earlier this week about how the Saints' offensive line, one of the league's best, had to match the intensity of the Dallas front seven. Lawrence talked about how "distressed" teams can become when they get hit in the mouth and "they ain't doing what they're normally doing, putting up 50 points."
Lawrence suggested after the game that local media twisted his words, but he wasn't backing off his general sentiment.
"I mean it's football," he said. "If you capitalize on a team early, you've got to step on their throats and don't let them back up, which we did today. We held them to 10 points and I'm excited for all my guys. I'm glad we had this battle to see what a real championship team looks like."
What Lawrence didn't have to say is something that was obvious once this game ended: The Cowboys also got a chance to see how they measure up against a championship contender. They don't have as much offense as the Saints and, to be blunt, they don't really need it. The 'Boys proved that defense still has a place in the NFL this season. The question now, especially with the NFC East title very much within its grasp, is how far this D will take them in the coming weeks.