The New Orleans Saints will play in their first ever Thanksgiving Day game on Thursday when they travel to Jerry Jones’s Palace near Dallas.
For the Dallas Cowboys, it’s been the worst of times and the slightly better of times as of late.
After aspiring to become the first team to play in a Super Bowl in their home stadium, the 3-7 Cowboys can expect to do little else this season than run the tables for a winning record and help new coach Jason Garrett, the eighth in franchise history, hold on to his job for the longterm.
The Cowboys are last in the NFC East, trailing the third place Washington Redskins by two games, the second place New York Giants by three games and the first place Philadelphia Eagles by four games. With the division title appearing to be out of reach and strong bids for wild card spots by the 7-3 Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Green Bay Packers, the Cowboys will be watching the big game from either home or through the league’s player ticket allocation from the stands.
After a 1-7 start, Jones had enough after a 45-7 blow out at the hands of the Packers and dispatched head coach Wade Phillips, who briefly coached the Saints in 1985. Under Garrett, the Cowboys have won two straight games by double-digit margins.
The Cowboy offense has had trouble establishing a running game, ranking 29th in the league with 83.9 ground yards per game. Their reliance on the pass suffered a major blow when quarterback Tony Romo was injured and was replaced with 14 year veteran Jon Kitna in their fifth game.
Kitna, who is on his fourth team, has completed 63% of his passes for 1,223 yards, 10 touchdowns and 7 picks.
If the Cowboys 17th ranked scoring offense has been disappointing, their 28th ranked defense in points allowed per game (27.1) has been an embarrassment, where they rank 21st (235.1 ypg) against the pass and 22nd (117.3 ypg) against the run.
Though the Saints have experienced their own resurgence as of late, starting with a Halloween night victory over the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers, the injury bug has taken more than a few bites out of the starting line up.
Running back Pierre Thomas is expected to miss yet another game and eight other starters had limited participation in Tuesday’s practice, including running back Reggie Bush, who missed out on playing before his old college coach last Sunday.
The Saints offense has finally found its groove, ranking 5th in total yards per game (382.3), heavier on the pass (3rd in the league with 286.3 ypg) than on the run (26th with 95.5).
Even if Bush plays in a limited role, undrafted free agent running back Chris Ivory once again proved to be able to carry the load.
The Black and Gold defense has consistently outperformed the offense, even though they haven’t had anywhere near the success they enjoyed last season regarding takeaways, interceptions in particular.
The Saints secondary gave up some deep passes last Sunday against the Seahawks and with the Cowboys making no secret of their strong inclination to throw the ball, the safeties and cornerbacks will be challenged whenever their offense is on the field.
As the Saints are still two games behind the Atlanta Falcons (because of the tie-breaker scenarios at this juncture), this is another must-win for the Black and Gold. A conference loss would factor heavily in tie-breaker scenarios that could make the team a high seed with a first round playoff bye to a wild card team that will have to win on the road through the Super Bowl.
The formula for the Saints is pretty basic: the offense needs to score touchdowns and avoid making mistakes while the defense has to make the Cowboys settle for field goals when in scoring and range and the secondary must contain the longball.
USAToday oddsmaker Danny Sheridan has the Saints as 3.5 favorite. I can more easily see the Saints losing a close one than winning a close one as the Saints offense ought to be able to exploit the Cowboys defense.
Though nicked up, the Saints ought to win this game by a comfortable margin, giving the new Cowboys coach an unwelcome reality check. Also the Black and Gold has an outstanding score to settle: it was the Cowboys that broke the team’s 13 game winning streak last season.
I think interceptions will be a big factor in this one, favoring the Saints. Give the points but don’t send me an invoice if it doesn’t work out.