Bigger than Romo's win over Green Bay in 2007 in a match up of two 10-1 teams that gave the Cowboys the inside track to home field advantage. Bigger than his first ever start against the Panthers back in 2006. Bigger than his return from injury against the Redskins last season in Washington.
Romo engineered the offense, flanked by an out-of-this-world defense, as the Cowboys handed the New Orleans Saints their first loss of 2009, a 24-17 thriller that wasn't decided until the final six seconds. The Cowboys snapped a two-game skid, got a December win, and proved to themselves that they are capable of playing with and beating any team in the NFL.
And as tough as Romo's performance was (just look at his heads-up scamper on a broken play where Marion Barber didn't take the handoff), it was matched if not surpassed by defensive leader DeMarcus Ware's superhuman performance all game long after leaving last week's game with a stadium-silencing neck injury. Ware came through with two sacks including the game-clinching fumble, jarring the ball loose from Drew Brees with six seconds left as the Saints were trying to tie up the game. Ware and Romo led by example, and the rest of the Cowboys
Romo got things started quickly, leading the Cowboys to a pair of long TD drives on the Cowboys first two possessions, a first for Dallas this year. It was actually the first time the Cowboys scored on their first two possessions since Week 1, and Ware's defense forced a pair of Saints three-and-outs to begin the game, giving the Cowboys an early 14-0 lead. After the Saints first drive stalled after only 9 yards, Romo needed just 1:46 to lead Dallas 79 yards, hitting Miles Austin for a 49-yard strike to get on the board first.
The two-time Pro Bowler finished the game 22-of-34 for 312 yards and a touchdown (104.0 rating) while also running the ball four times for 21 yards. One of his biggest plays came on a second-quarter drive where the Cowboys didn't even score. Romo dropped back showing pass before turning to hand the ball to Marion Barber on a draw. Barber wasn't ready for the ball, and Romo alertly took off up the field for a 10-yard gain to turn a 2nd and 18 into a more manageable 3rd and 8. He also marched Dallas down the field in the fourth quarter on a 10-play, 74-yard drive that could have proven to be the game-clincher had Nick Folk made a chip-shot field goal.
The Cowboys can now get back to Dallas and prepare for next week's trip to Washington to take on the rival Redskins. And depending on how the Eagles fair in foul weather on a snowy field on Sunday, Dallas could find itself with the lead in the NFC East by tomorrow night.
Here's the heads up play by Romo
Dallas was fortunate not only to jump out to an early lead, but also to get plenty of favorable bounces and good-luck plays throughout the evening. Early in the game, Romo had a pass that hit a defender in the numbers, but was fortunate to have the ball dropped by the DB. Late in the second quarter, Drew Brees and Co. were working to get on the board before the half. From the Saints own 17, Brees found an open Reggie Bush, who made the catch with plenty of room to run, but instead of putting a trademark juke on a defender and burning the sidelines for 50-something yards, Bush limped toward the sideline, injuring himself on the play and gaining only 16 yards. On the Saints first play of the third quarter after the Cowboys opened the second half with a long TD drive, Devery Henderson dropped a ball that hit him in the lap in the end zone. Two plays later, the Cowboys had an Anthony Spencer sack negated by an Orlando Scandrick penalty, but Spencer and Marcus Spears sacked Brees on the next play to keep the pressure on him. The Saints also had a chance to down a punt inside the 5 yard line, but the ball bounced past a special teamer into the end zone for a touchback. So many little plays here and there, and it all helped add up to a big Cowboys win.
A few notes from the Cowboys big win over the now 13-1 and no longer undefeated New Orleans Saints:
+ Folk could have lost the game, will lose his job
The Cowboys squeaked out a 7-point win over the Saints, but the final 2:17 of the game would have been a lot less stressful had Nick Folk not doinked a 24-yard field goal off the upright. It was Mike Vanderjagt in 2006 all over again. Folk's miss will most likely be his last kick as a Cowboys -- at least for this season. The Cowboys will most likely cut their losses by cutting their kicker. Had he made it, the game would have been all but over, and the Cowboys would have been celebrating Romo's fourth-quarter drive to set up the game-clinching kick.
The kicking contest between Folk and David Buehler this week gave Folk the placekicker job more by default than anything. And while Folk did seem to get some of the nerves out with a 44-yard field goal to close the first half, when the pressure was on and the game could have been won, he failed to come through in the clutch. Wade Phillips and and the rest of the Cowboys coaching staff did its best to stand by Nick Folk for the majority of this season. Their reasoning kept coming down to him not missing a kick that cost Dallas a game. Well, this miss against the Saints didn't cost them the game, but with how close New Orleans came to tying up the game down the stretch, Dallas can't take a chance on Folk in the future.
+ Defense around Ware steps up as well
The impact of DeMarcus Ware returning to the field is undeniable. Considering he was taken off the field at Cowboys Stadium on a stretcher just six days ago, Ware playing against the Saints gave the Cowboys an emotional lift as well as a drastic upgrade of talent on the field. Mike Jenkins and Anthony Spencer came up big throughout the game with big sacks, pass deflections and turnovers.
For Jenkins, he nabbed his fifth interception of the season on an underthrown pass from Drew Brees to halt a late-in-the-half Saints drive that helped preserve a big Cowboys lead going into the half. Spencer recovered a Brees fumble three and a half minutes later to set up a Cowboys field goal at the end of the half. Two young playmakers on the defensive side of the ball are beginning to emerge as more than just role players to DeMarcus Ware's spotlight. If this team is going to compete in the postseason not just this year but in future seasons, players like Jenkins and Spencer along with an NFL-elite like Ware will be the key to that defensive success.
As much as we lambast head coach Wade Phillips for oh so much after Cowboys losses, his defense was as tough as we've ever seen when they needed to the most. His unit dominated the turnover battle, taking the ball away three times, and the Cowboys held New Orleans under 20 points for the first time since October 2008. Phillips and Romo both showed plenty of fired-up emotion throughout the game. And for Phillips, while he may not be great at handling the tough questions at press conferences, he handled one of the toughest offenses in the NFL for his biggest win since taking the job in Dallas.
+ Still Miles ahead
It didn't take long for Romo to find his new favorite target on a 49-yard touchdown strike less than four minutes into the game. Miles Austin continued his Pro Bowl caliber season, finishing the game with a team-high seven catches for 139 yards and a TD. Romo targeted the speedy receiver 13 times in the game. To contract, Jason Witten was targeted eight times, and no one else was thrown to more than three times.
Austin is currently fourth in the entire NFL in receiving yards, albeit on game ahead of everyone else thanks to playing on Saturday, with 1,138 on the year. His 11 touchdowns are tied with San Francisco's Vernon Davis for the league-high. On the Cowboys, Austin is so far ahead of the rest of the pack, it's safe to say that the offense would be drastically less potent without him on the field. No other Cowboys wide receiver has more than 600 yards on the season, and Austin had caught almost half of all Romo's TD passes this year (11 of 23).
Austin is ahead of Terrell Owens' 2008 season of 69 catches, 1052 yards and 10 touchdowns. He will have a chance to rack up the most receiving yards in the Romo era over the final two weeks of the season (Owen had 1355 yards and 15 TDs in 2007).
+ Speaking of Roy Williams
Looking at the Cowboys "other" receiver, Roy Williams did very, very little to help the Cowboys upend the undefeated Saints. And while he can't make Romo throw to him more than the three times in the game, he should at least be able to catch the ball when it comes to give his quarterback confidence to continue throwing the ball his way. Williams made a nice catch on the first 3rd down the Cowboys faced on the day, a 3rd & 5 from their 45-yard line that Williams turned into a 14-yard gain to extend the drive. The Cowboys went on to score for a 14-0 lead.
The former 1st round pick had another chance to come up big on a 3rd down late in the game and failed to do so. After the Saints first touchdown of the game to make it a two-score game, 24-10, Dallas went three-and-out after Williams dropped a key 3rd and 4 pass from Romo over the middle. As a result, the Cowboys were only able to hold the ball for 1:03 on a key 4th quarter drive, and the Saints marched right down the field for a second touchdown, pulling within just seven points. A first down there doesn't necessarily win you the game, but it does run at least another minute off the clock, and considering how this game came down to the final seconds, it could have been helpful.
It's easy to see that Roy Williams is simply not what was advertised when the Cowboys traded for him. This year, he has 37 catches for 592 yards and six touchdowns. That's production you can find in the later rounds of the draft (for example, seventh rounder Patrick Crayton has 32 catches, 507 yards and four touchdowns this year). He is not a big-play receiver. He is not a possession receiver. He is not even a gimmick receiver. He's just a wide receiver. A guy running routes. And that's all he is going to be in Dallas. You need role players on any team, but that's not how Williams was advertised.
+ Marion running like the Barbarian again
Don't know who was in the backfield last week when the Cowboys were stuffed on three plays from the 1-yard line against the Chargers, but on Saturday the Barbarian was back. Marion Barber pounded the ball on the ground, gaining tough yardage throughout the game while finding the end zone twice, his 10th two-rushing-touchdown game of his career.
Cowboys rushing stats at New Orleans
Barber and Felix Jones provided a steady diet of hard-fought rushing yards throughout the night. When was the last time we saw MB3 race anyone outside to the pylon for six points? It happened yesterday to open the second half. When he is healthy and running strong, a la 2006 and 2007, it takes a lot for defenders to bring him down. Barber was able to fight through arm-tackles for extra yards, and the blocking by the offensive line did a tremendous job to pave the way.
+ Fast Felix
As for the Cowboys homerun-hitting running back, Felix Jones didn't go yard in this one, but did provide a solid effort on the ground as well as in the kick-return game. Dallas didn't take advantage of his 40-yard kickoff return in the second half, but it was great to see that kind of explosiveness out of Jones late in the game. Not his best game of the year, but certainly acceptable.
+ Rough game for Flozell
Left tackle Flozell Adam had a rough game. A couple of penalties while the Cowboys were driving caused set backs. On one drive in particular, Adams was called for holding, putting the Cowboys in a 1st & 19. After the Cowboys were able to get a first down, Adams promptly gave up a sack for an 8-yard loss, making it 2nd & 18 for Dallas. He did have a big hit on Marion Barber after his first touchdown run -- but Barber is on the Cowboys with Adams.
UPDATE: Yahoo! has a post about Adams' takedown of Barber.
+ Who dat now?
New Orleans lost for the first time this season despite many "experts" saying the Cowboys had no chance to win this game. Drew Brees looked average for most of the game. He turned the ball over three times, including two fumbles.
|New Orleans Passing|
Brees didn't get much help on the ground. The Saints rushed for just 65 yards on 13 running plays, compared to 49 pass plays. Can't blame the Saints for being so off-balance. Not only are they are passing team, and they should put the ball in the hands of their MVP-candidate quarterback, but they got down so big so early that they had to throw to get back into things. And had they been able to complete the comeback in a frantic 4th quarter, would anyone be doubting this team's Super Bowl credentials?
Dallas held the potent Saints offense to converting just 1-of-7 of their 3rd downs. Dallas didn't give them a chance to maintain momentum by constantly stopping Saints drives and forcing punts. The Cowboys controlled the clock for most of the game, save the 4th quarter, and decisively won the turnover battle (+3). That is how to win football games. Period.
The 17 points the Saints scored were a season-low, worse than their previous low of 24 in a win over the Jets in week 4. In fact, the Saints had scored at least 20 points in 22-straight games, dating back to an October 19 loss against the Panthers last season, 30-7. This team simply doesn't get held to 17 points.
New Orleans is now 13-1 on the year, leaving Indianapolis as the lone undefeated team at 14-0. They are still on the inside track for home field in the NFC, and if the Cowboys are going to advance in the post-season, they are going to need to be able to win in a hostile environment. Dallas can now cross that off the checklist after using the power of the Death Star to blow up the Superdome.