'TNF' preview: What to watch for in Saints-Cowboys

It's a battle of two of the hotter teams in the NFC when the Saints visit the Cowboys tonight. Here's five things to watch for leading up to the 8:20 p.m. ET kickoff (watch the game on NFL Network, FOX or streaming on Amazon Prime Video).

  1. This clash between division-leading opponents has some important implications. With a win Thursday evening against Dallas, New Orleans can become the first team to clinch a playoff berth. That result coupled with a Panthers loss or tie against the Buccaneers on Sunday afternoon would secure the Saints their second consecutive NFC South title. It would be the first time New Orleans has ever claimed back-to-back division crowns. The fighting fleurs-de-lis are likely to win the division eventually, save for a historic meltdown, but to have a home playoff game locked up by the first week of December would be a welcome comfort. The Saints have bigger fish, er, Rams to fry anyhow.

On the other sideline, Dallas only recently took control of the NFC East with a Thanksgiving win over the injury-riddled Redskins. An upset victory over the Saints would keep the Cowboys a half-game ahead of their division rivals for at least a good three days, while a loss would do the inverse. Nothing too much at stake on the Cowboys' end, except their reputation as contenders or pretenders in the NFC.

  1. Critical to Dallas' resurgence this season has been the return of the run game. Since the Cowboys completed a trade for Amari Cooper, not only has Dallas' aerial attack improved, but its ground game has flourished. The league's leading rusher on the season, Ezekiel Elliott is averaging 25.4 more rushing YPG, 47.4 more scrimmage YPG and 0.9 more yards per touch since Cooper came to town. But in Dallas, Elliott will attempt to accomplish a feat the Saints haven't allowed going back to Week 11 of the 2017 season. The Saints haven't allowed an individual 100-yard rushing effort in 17 straight games since Redskins running back Samaje Perine broke the century mark. Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen has attributed the success to gap discipline, fundamentals and the entire unit buying into team defense.

"I think our guys have really bought into the ability to stop the run," Allen told reporters this week. "And I think with that success, they've got a kind of a sense of, 'Hey, look we are No. 1 in stopping the run right now and we want to stay that way." Indeed, the Saints are tops in the league in run defense, but 30th in pass defense, a discrepancy that begs the question: How much should the Cowboys lean on Zeke on Thursday night?

  1. AT&T Stadium is a desert spaceship, a palatial estate and a feat of modern engineering. But on Thursday night, it will be just another stop on the Drew Brees MVP tour. Brees is on pace to set multiple NFL records -- completion percentage (76.4), passer rating (127.3) -- the former of which he set. He boasts an untouchable 29:2 TD-to-INT ratio and is averaging 8.8 yards per attempt. And while he has the luxury of completing passes to Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, Brees was as comfortable in his last showing throwing four scores to the runt of the litter. Move over, Mahomes!

But Dallas' defense is no pushover. Led by DeMarcus Lawrence and DROY candidate Leighton Vander Esch, the Cowboys rank third in PPG allowed, big plays allowed and QB hits. With Terron Armstead out for the third straight week, will Dallas' pass rush take advantage and hit Brees early? Or will the Cowboys end up as another notch on Brees' belt as the Saints march toward his first MVP trophy?

  1. Amari Cooper is one breakaway catch-and-run away from having his number retired in Dallas. I kid, I kid, but that's the vibe around Arlington when it comes to the Cowboys' major trade-deadline acquisition. Dak Prescott is completing 8 percent more of his passes and throwing for 50 more yards per game since Cooper arrived. Dallas' third-down conversion rate has risen from 31.9 to 48.1. And as Cooper's Thanksgiving triumph showed, the Cowboys have discovered the big play with their new No. 1 on the pitch.

As for the Cowboys' old No. 1? Dez Bryant signed with the Saints in early November, anticipating a run to his first Super Bowl, only to tear his Achilles in his second practice. Thursday night would have been his homecoming. Not that Dallas is hung up on its "X." The Cowboys are cooking with Cooper and against an unreliable secondary look to stir it up some more in prime time.

  1. One tete-a-tete to watch out for: Michael Thomas versus Byron Jones. Thomas barely needs an introduction. The Saints receiver is just one of three players with over 1,000 receiving yards, and on fewer than 100 targets. He and Brees boast the league's highest passer rating by a QB-WR duo (135.1). Thomas also leads the pros in reception percentage (88.7) and is the only WR in the top five of that category.

Jones is otherwise unheralded, but the Cowboys corner has been playing at the height of his game in 2018. Pro Football Focus ranks Jones as the highest-graded corner in the league. He has yet to surrender a touchdown all year and has allowed a 67.4 passer rating, good for eighth in the league. 135.1 versus 67.4, head to head. Should be fun.

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