Okay, New Orleans Saints, fans, are you safe to breathe.
First, I stated all week long that this would go down to the wire, would be very close and that the Saints would win a very close game. They did.
Second, Jay Glazer reported prior to the start of "The Payton Bowl" that barring an unforeseen circumstance, Jason Garrett will return to coach the Cowboys in 2013, that he is safe, regardless of the outcome of the final two games of the 2012 season for the Cowboys.
As I have said all along, I fully expect Payton to be back in New Orleans as head coach of the Saints in 2013. With that as a backdrop, one wonders what Payton is thinking after watching the Saints outlast the Cowboys, 34-31, in a wild, overtime thriller at Cowboys Stadium?
It looked a bit ominous for a large part of the first half.
Your defensive game plan has Patrick Robinson covering Dez Bryant one-on-one? Might want to rethink that one.
Two 58-yard touchdown connections later, the Cowboys were on top of the Saints 14-7.
In the first half alone, Bryant had five catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns and he came into the game banged up. The 145 yards tied a career high--in less than 25 minutes of the game. Bryant continued his assault in the fourth quarter and finished with nine catches for 224 yards and two scores. Of course, Jabari Greer got hurt and Steve Spagnuolo had no option but to keep Robinson on Bryant the rest of the way.
Due to a very poor kick return game, the Saints average starting field position in the first half was awful. New Orleans started at its own 16.6 yard line on its five first half possessions and that included starting from its 30-yard line on the final possession of the half. It was hardly better in the second half.
Fortunately, the Saints offense was lethal much of the afternoon which led to the victory. New Orleans is now 7-8 while Dallas fell to 8-7, with its playoff chances hurt severely.
Here are my other quick takes on the game:
**The Saints established a season-high with 562 yards of offense.
**Jason Witten broke Tony Gonzalez' all-time record for receptions in a season with his 103rd reception, which came in overtime. Witten is underrated and under-appreciated, a terrific player.
**Darren Sproles got the start at running back, working on isolating him on the Dallas linebackers. The Cowboys were banged up there and Sproles took total advantage, accounting for 112 yards in the first half. He finished with 182 all-purpose yards.
**On the nine-yard touchdown run by Mark Ingram to put the Saints up 7-0, , guard Eric Olsen lined up at fullback and had an excellent lead block to spring Ingram. Brian de La Puente had a good seal block on the play as well. it was Ingram's fourth touchdown in six games.
**The Saints got a stop on Dallas' first possession on a sack of Tony Romo by Tom Johnson, who ran a loop stunt and the Dallas center, did not pick him up.
**What is wrong with the Saints receivers? Devery Henderson drops an easy pass, Marques Colston drops an easy pass and later loses another one when he hits the ground. No excuse. We are likely witnessing the conclusion of Henderson's career as a Saint. The Saints have ranked near the top of the NFL in dropped passes all season long.
**Jermon Bushrod committed a false start penalty, clearly concerned about blocking DeMarcus Ware. Jimmy Graham then committed a false start penalty as well.
**The Saints had a chance to take control of the game but did not. They had third-and-one and Ingram ran for no gain. On fourth down, Garrett Hartley, who had made eight straight field goals, missed badly, hooking a 35-yard attempt left, ending a 15-play drive with nothing.The Saints had the ball for 12:48 of the first 15:45 of the game but had just a 7-0 lead.
**Dez Bryant scored his 11th touchdown of the season, his first in the first half this season, when he burned Patrick Robinson on a 58-yard touchdown reception early in the second quarter. Robinson got beat to the inside, the throw hung up, Bryant tracked it, Robinson flew right by Bryant and it was an easy touchdown. Bryant won the first four one-one-one matchups with Robinson in the game. Clearly, this was a target for Romo and it paid off.
**Pierre Thomas dropped a kickoff, moved slowly and put the Saints in poor field position to start a second quarter drive. The Saints kickoff return game has been very pedestrian this season. Michael Higgins was later flagged for holding on a kickoff.
**The Saints continued to self destruct on their next possession. David Thomas and Zack Strief got consecutive holding penalties to kill the possession.
**Thomas Morstead continued what should be a Pro Bowl year, blasting a 63-yard punt to help get the Saints out of a hole.
**Joe Vitt originally sent his field goal team on the field on fourth-and-two from the Dallas 24 late in the first half, only to change his mind in Sean Payton-like fashion. The aggressive approach worked, as Brees hit Marques Colston for 16 yards and a first-and-goal at the eight-yard line. Of course, Colston lost control of the ground when he hit the ground, causing it to be incomplete via booth review, but Anthony Spencer was offside, giving the Saints a first-down at the Dallas 19 with 1:35 to play in the half.
**How do you lose four yards in a power formation from the Dallas two-yard line? That's what the Saints managed to do on a run by Ingram. Of course, Brees hit Moore with his 37th touchdown pass of the season on the next play, a six-yard effort, the sixth touchdown reception for Moore on the season. Moore paralyzed the man coverage on the play out of reverse, skinny motion. Nice scheme, nice execution, good route, good throw.
**Brees now has 20 or more completions in an NFL record 51 straight games. He had 20 completions in the first half alone. Brees was 22-of-30 for 261 yards and a touchdown in the first half and had three balls dropped that clearly would have put him over 300 yards. The Saints had 317 yards in the first half. Tony Romo was 9-of-12 for 176 yards and two scores in the first half.
**The Saints best defense in the first half was its offense, which had the football for 21:48 to just 8:12 for the Cowboys. Of course, Dallas did not need the ball for long, taking just 1:28 and 3:23 to score touchdowns, using just eight plays total to do so. The Saints would finish with 41:59 of possession to just 22:28 for Dallas.
**Junior Galette had a great chance to recover the second half kickoff when it was fumbled by Dwayne Harris and Galette simply missed it. You have to make plays.
**Jabari Greer suffered a concussion during the game. Elbert Mack replaced him.
**Jimmy Graham then DROPPED yet another pass, costing the Saints a huge gain and a possession with the game tied 17-17. The Saints had six drops, totally unacceptable. The Saints must go out and find a receiver in the offseason. Though Joe Morgan has shown the ability to catch the deep ball, Colston and Moore are the only dependable wide receivers and they are both 29-years old, in the prime of their careers.
**Curtis Lofton and Will Smith then came up with the big play, forcing a fumble by DeMarco Murray which Lofton recovered at the Dallas five-yard line. The Saints capitalized as Pierre Thomas leaked out of the backfield, totally unaccounted for and Brees found him for a five-yard touchdown pass and the Saints grabbed a 24-17 lead with 4:03 to play in the third quarter. Lofton has been the Saints most consistent player on defense all season long.
**Jonathan Casillas had a chance at an interception late in the third quarter after Cameron Jordan tipped a Romo pass but Casillas could not reel it in.
**Sproles did a terrible job fielding punts. Twice, he let punts hit the ground which severely hurt the Saints' field position. On the second one, Dallas downed the ball at the New Orleans two-yard line.
**DeMarcus Ware, who came into the game injured, went out again late in the third quarter with his bum shoulder, hurting the Dallas cause.
**Pierre Thomas got hit by Brady Poppinga and appeared to hurt his knee in the fourth quarter but he was able to jog off the field and returned to the game.
**Brees went over 300 yards passing for the ninth time this season. So did Romo. Brees went on to throw for 400 yards for the ninth time in his career. Romo also went on to pass for over 400 yards. This marked just the fifth time in NFL history that two quarterbacks in the same game threw for over 400 yards and three or more touchdowns.
**On the afternoon, Brees was 37-of-53 for 446 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. He is suddenly hot, very hot, again. In his last two games, Brees is 63-of-92 (68%) for 755 yards with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. Romo was 26-of-43 for 416 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. He is good, but I will take Brees over him, any day of the week and twice on Sunday.
**The Saints had a pair of receivers go over 100 yards on the afternoon, including Colston and Sproles. Colston had 10 catches for 153 yards while Sproles had seven catches for 104 yards.
**On the 60-yard completion from Brees to Colston to the Dallas three-yard line, Colston squared off his in-route beautifully, Brees hit him in stride and Colston broke the tackle of Charlie Peprah to set up a three-yard touchdown pass to David Thomas, who leaked out of the backfield from the fullback slot uncovered to make it 31-17. The touchdown finished off a 98-yard drive in nine plays, the longest drive of the year, in terms of yardage, for the Saints.
**The Cowboys had three drops of Romo as well, two by Murray and one by Miles Austin.
**Galette got a sack to kill a Cowboys drive with just over 10 minutes to play in the game. It was Junior's fifth sack of the season.
**Brees became just the fifth quarterback in NFL history to complete 4,000 passes. He did so with a 12-yard completion in the fourth quarter to Darren Sproles for a first down.
**Graham did not play very well for much of the afternoon. He had a pair of key drops and a pair of false start penalties. He does not look totally focused. Graham has enjoyed a good season but not close to last year's great season.
**Romo then took the Cowboys on a very quick five-play, 80-yard scoring drive with Dwaine Harris catching a 16-yard touchdown pass from Romo to pull Dallas within 31-24 with 3:35 remaining. It took Dallas just 1:10 to drive the field, going 80 yards in five plays. It was much too easy. The big play was a 41-yard completion from Romo to Bryant, who again beat Patrick Robinson.
**Why not take a shot with play-action and throw the ball on the final play leading into the two-minute warning? An incomplete pass means nothing there, stopping the clock, anyway. With Dallas stacking the line-of-scrimmage, it was virtually impossible for Ingram to make any yardage and he did not, losing a yard to the New Orleans 25-yard line. Instead, the Saints were faced with second-and-11 with Dallas preserving its two timeouts. The Saints then ran Sproles inside for nothing on second down. Brees then hit Colston for nine yards to the 35, a yard short, and the Cowboys called their final timeout with 1:45 remaining, forcing the Saints to punt. Predictably, the Saints then lined up to go for it, trying to draw Dallas offside. It did not work. Morstead punted and Dallas got the ball back with a chance to tie. You kind of knew what would happen, didn't you?
**The Saints lousy special teams continued their late season swoon, allowing Dwaine Harris to return a punt 28 yards, giving the Cowboys the ball at their own 35-yard line with 1:29 to play.
**Johnny Patrick then whiffed on a tackle of DeMarco Murray on a pass completion, allowing him to gain 23 yards on a completion from Romo to the New Orleans 42-yard line. Romo then hit Jason Witten for 19 yards as he Roman Harper totally lost him in coverage. On fourth down, Patrick showed you why he has been invisible since early in the season, getting whipped by Austin on a fade-stop route for a 19-yard touchdown pass with 15 seconds left to send the game to overtime. Remember--Jabari Greer was injured earlier in the game.
**In overtime, the Saints got a key stop with Robinson finally making a play on Bryant. Brees then hit Jimmy Graham for 26 yards to the Dallas 48-yard line before Pierre Thomas ran for seven yards to the Dallas 41. Graham then dropped another pass, but redeemed himself with a seven-yard reception for a first-down to the 34-yard line.
**Marques Colston then made a catch for a first down but was hit and fumbled AGAIN when hit by LSU's Morris Claiborne. How many times will Colston let the ball get loose via fumbles or dropped balls? Jimmy Graham then saved the game, recovering the fumble forward in the scrum at the two-yard line. Good hustle by Graham. Hartley then hit what amounted to an extra point, booting a 20-yard field goal to win it 34-31.
**The 33 first downs by the Cowboys tied a franchise record.
**Dallas is now 2-1 in overtime while New Orleans is 1-1.
This was vintage Saints--a big-time offense and a defense which holds on. The Saints won the turnover battle, forcing one and not giving up any. The team continues to compete hard, something Payton has to like as he watches his team. Sounds good to Saints fans, doesn't it?
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