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No. 7: Saints-Cowboys tilt gave plenty of reason to be thankful

As the research analyst for NFL Network's NFL RedZone, Elliot Harrison watched all 267 games in the 2010 season. We asked him to rank the 20 most memorable.

If you cover the NFL professionally, it's rare that a game hits close to home. Usually, you find yourself watching everything with a professional eye, often when you don't want to. It's not much different than a film composer going to the movies and then noticing if the score works or makes the movie cheesy and contrived.

That said, the Saints-Cowboys tilt from this past Thanksgiving hit me in a way that was far less "work" and a lot more passion. I guess it reminded me what was so cool about our game in the first place, and why us writers -- Steve Wyche, Jason La Canfora, all of us -- hope the lockout bites the big one.

The seventh best game on our list was the only regular-season matchup that I didn't really watch for work purposes. Being from the Dallas area, I went home for a much-needed visit with my parents and took in this game at my deceased grandmother's house, where I watched so many games as a kid. It was like being zapped back to 1982. Up until her 90s, my granny cut the Cowboys final roster out of the Dallas Morning News before Week 1 and hung it in the kitchen. Although browning and aging slightly, the last roster she ever posted was in 2001, and it still sits proudly on the wall. Without that kind of influence, I wouldn't be working for the league, much less watching the NFL.

Being surrounded by family members who are passionate about their Cowboys, it was hard to watch the Saints' 30-27 win with a detached eye. Had I given Sean Payton vocal credit for a great play call -- and man, he had several of them in this game -- I'm not sure I would hear a chorus of "Attaboy, Sean!" behind me.

It also might've been hard to notice what a killer game this was.

But it wasn't. There were so many twists and turns. New Orleans used great offensive game-planning (that's Payton, baby) to pull out in front 20-3. But Dallas, partially through the personality of its quarterback, Jon Kitna, would not quit. The dude brought intensity -- like barking at part-time knucklehead Dez Bryant -- all freaking game.

So did Drew Brees.

Down 27-23 late, after a huge Roy Williams' fumble gave New Orleans the ball back, Payton and Brees dialed up a beauty on  third-and-10. There was no conservative "let's just pick up 10 on a curl route" to be found here, man. Brees went up top to Robert Meachem for 55 yards. That set up the winning touchdown in a contest filled with key turnovers, including one on a replay review, fourth-down stops and spectacular offense.

Like most of you, Thanksgiving was about other things than football. Yet, I can tell you this was one game I'd gladly rewatch on my laptop in June.

We could show a million plays from this thriller, but the three below are ones that really mattered.

Game rewind

Bone-headed play of the game

The Williams play came with just a shade over three minutes left. The vilified receiver finally did something right for the Cowboys, taking an inside route off to the races.

But Roy Williams wouldn't be Roy Williams if he didn't follow up pure gold with a dog turd of a play, failing to secure the ball tightly enough and allowing himself to be stripped by Malcolm Jenkins. Terrible timing for Williams, clutch play by Jenkins.

Can't-miss play

How often do you see a reverse work for big yardage? Maybe a couple of times a season?

If you want to see the most perfectly executed wide receiver end around ever, Miles Austin's 60-yard scamper was a siren call for fundamentally sound offensive football.

Controversial call

With the Saints nursing a tenuous 30-27 lead and 31 seconds left, Dallas had one last shot. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett and Co. faced a fourth-and-10 from the Saints' 41-yard line.

Instead of relying on a passing game that had already picked up 300-plus yards and went 8-18 on third and fourth down, Garrett went another route. What were the chances of hitting a 59-yard field goal? Evidently better -- at least in Garrett's mind.

Why is this game No. 7 of 2010?

This game was fun. So many storylines to digest:

  1. A clearly superior opponent against a true underdog at home.
  1. Payton and his team getting a little payback for Dallas killing its perfect season hopes in 2010.
  1. Twists and turns galore, including a 17-point comeback.
  1. Dallas staying in the game with nothing to play for and Kitna at quarterback.
  1. Another in a long line of Thanksgiving Day classics.

Of all the games I watched in 2010, few had me more engaged than this one. The rest of the country, too.

Why not higher?

As great as this Turkey Day thriller was, the Cowboys' blunders and mistake-filled season made it harder to rank higher. Not to mention, being ranked the seventh-best game of the season ain't too shabby.

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