As things stand today, the Saints would eventually have to play on the road in the playoffs.
But they have the ultimate equalizer — a quarterback in sync with his coach and playing at the peak of his abilities.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees was amazing Sunday night, completing 34-of-41 passes for 392 yards and four touchdowns as the Saints improved to 7-2 with a 49-17 win over the Cowboys.
They set a new NFL record with 40 first downs, evidence of how thoroughly they dominated the Cowboys.
At times, it looked like Brees and coach Sean Payton were just toying with Dallas, doing stuff for fun against an overmatched opponent (outgaining them 625-193).
The floundering of the Cowboys only put Brees’ sublime in night in stark relief. While they struggled to get a first down (Tony Romo passed for 128 yards), the Saints were putting on a show.
Brees spread the ball among nine targets, and because of the margin of the game, they even ran it some too.
But he was surgical in the first half, completing 19 straight passes at one point.
That kind of precision in the passing game is going to make them an interesting matchup with the 9-1 Seahawks, and their Dec. 2 game could go a long way toward deciding home field in the NFC playoffs.
Here are five more things we learned during Sunday Night Football:
1. Here’s a pro tip: If you’re in the vicinity of Bourbon Street tonight or this morning, and see Rob Ryan, follow him at a discreet distance. Free drinks are bound to flow.
The Saints defensive coordinator tried to downplay things this week, but he was clearly salty about being scapegoated in Dallas.
And he stuck it to his old boss in the best way possible.
Ryan’s never proven to be long-term sustainable as a coordinator, but the difference he’s made in the Saints defense has been profound.
They’re not a particularly talented unit. They don’t have to be. But he’s helped the league’s worst defense ever become respectable at times, and that’s enough considering who they’re playing with.
2. For all the losses the Cowboys have taken on defense this year, it’s easy to overlook the way defensive tackle Jason Hatcher has played.
He had 7.0 sacks entering this week, and has been the foundation of their next-man-up defense all year. To think, the initial plan was for him to play on the nose so Jay Ratliff could be the three-technique tackle Monte Kiffin’s defense is based on. Maybe it’s a good thing Ratliff never showed up.
Unfortunately, last week’s stinger left Hatcher inactive this week, and unable to help.
Without him, the Cowboys had a gaping hole in the middle of their defense, and that was before linebacker Sean Lee left with a hamstring injury.
3. The Saints are not without concerns on offense, no matter what the stat sheet says.
Brees is still getting hit far too often (one-legged DeMarcus Ware got a few shots in during the first half), and the quarterback’s anticipation and quick release can only cover up for middle-of-the-road talent up front for so long. They’ve let several starting linemen leave in recent years (Jermon Bushrod and Carl Nicks in free agency), and so many defections will eventually catch up.
But they’re also close to being dangerously thin at tight end. That was underscored when backup Benjamin Watson hit his head on the turf in the third quarter. He was diagnosed with a concussion, and didn’t return. Watson had three concussions in 2011 with the Browns (the third one landing him on IR), so there’s always going to be a concern there.
Jimmy Graham is getting by despite obvious pain, as his foot injury seems the kind of thing he’s going to have to manage all year.
So as good as they look at the moment, there’s still danger lurking around the corner.
4. Another really understated player for the Cowboys is special teamer Dwayne Harris, who left early in the game with a neck/shoulder injury.
Harris was blasted into a Saints player while well out of bounds, and was slow to get up. He eventually returned, which was a relief.
His contributions transcend his electrifying return ability. His coverage skills make him equally valuable on the other side of special teams, and that unit has been consistently good for the Cowboys this year.
5. The Saints are never going to be much of a running team, as long as that Brees guy is there.
And Mark Ingram may never justify the trade they made to get him.
But it was at least nice to see him productive. Ingram finished with 145 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries, one of the few times in his pro career when he looked like a viable option for them.
It was his first career 100-yard game, and it’s good to see that he’s capable of it.
Such that they need it.