After passing their first test without Drew Brees, the New Orleans Saints are back home to host the undefeated Dallas Cowboys for "Sunday Night Football."
Without their future Hall of Fame quarterback, the Saints (2-1) appeared to be headed for a downward spiral into mediocrity. In response, they assembled a true, team-wide effort in beating Seattle 33-27 last week. Both the defense and special teams scored a touchdown in the first half when the offense was struggling. Alvin Kamara served as Teddy Bridgewater’s security blanket, catching nine passes for 92 yards and a touchdown while also rushing for 69 yards and a score.
Dallas is 3-0 after beating Miami 31-6 at home but it took the Cowboys a half to get going. Dallas jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter but the offense stalled after that and two Dolphins field goals made it just a four-point game at halftime. Miami even had a chance to potentially grab the lead but fumbled the ball away at the Cowboys' seven-yard line. After the intermission, the home team scored on its first two possessions to essentially put the game away.
Dallas leads the all-time series between these two teams, 17-12. New Orleans is 8-6 at home against the Cowboys. Dallas won the last meeting, beating the Saints 13-10 in Week 13 last season.
Dallas at New Orleans
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 28 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints +2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Will Ezekiel Elliott be able to run on the Saints?
After giving up 180 rushing yards in Week 1 to Houston, New Orleans has stiffened some in that respect. The Los Angeles Rams posted 115 yards on 30 carries in Week 2 and last Sunday, Seattle managed 109 yards on the ground on 26 attempts. The Saints are still near the bottom (26th) of the NFL in rushing defense (134.3 ypg) but some progress has been made.
Meanwhile, Elliott appears to be slowly rounding into form himself, which is understandable considering he missed all of training camp due to his contract holdout. After putting up 53 rushing yards in the season opener, Elliott has posted 226 on 42 carries (5.4 ypc) over his last two games.
Elliott has faced New Orleans just once in his career. In last season's Week 13 meeting, he picked up 75 yards on 23 carries, but he also had six receptions for 60 yards and Dallas' lone touchdown. Whether he's a runner or a receiver, Elliott is sure to draw plenty of attention from the Saints defense.
2. Which Cowboys pass catcher rises to the occasion?
Injuries have dealt Dallas’ receiving corps a formidable blow. One starter, Michael Gallup, had knee surgery recently and is set to miss his second game. His running mate, Amari Cooper has already dealt with a strained left heel which kept him from playing in the preseason, and earlier this week he underwent an MRI on his right ankle. The good news is the MRI came back clean and Cooper has been a limited participant in practice this week. Tavon Austin also has missed the last two games because of a concussion and has yet to be fully cleared, although he has been able to practice in a limited capacity.
In light of these injuries, the Cowboys could use more production from Randall Cobb, Devin Smith, as well as tight end Jason Witten. Cobb has made his presence known in his first season in Dallas, as he currently ranks third on the team in receptions (11) and receiving yards (116). Witten may not be the prolific pass catcher he once was, but he's still a reliable target and has two touchdown catches in the early going. Devin Smith replaced Gallup in the lineup and he made a splash in the Week 2 win over Washington when he caught three passes for 74 yards, including a 51-yard touchdown.
With Gallup out and Cooper banged up, the Cowboys are not at full strength at receiver. So will someone else step up and help Dak Prescott maintain his red-hot start? Or will New Orleans be able to contain a Dallas passing game that's averaging more than 300 yards per game and has already produced nine touchdowns?
3. Can the Saints special teams come up big again?
With the catalyst of the offense, Drew Brees, set to miss the next several weeks, others will have to step up in his absence. At the top of that list is Teddy Bridgewater, who was solid (19-for-27, 177 yds., 2 TDs) but not spectacular against Seattle, but he will need help. Last week against the Seahawks, New Orleans got a fumble return for a touchdown from safety Vonn Bell and a 53-yard punt return for a score from Deonte Harris. Harris also had two nice kickoff returns (28 and 32 yards). Punter Thomas Morestead got into the act with a pair of punts in the first half that pinned the Seahawks inside their five-yard line. For the game, Morestead averaged 54 yards on his six punts.
It won't be easy for the Saints moving forward without their future Hall of Fame quarterback at the controls, but if they continue to get well-rounded efforts like what they put together against Seattle that will certainly help navigate this upcoming stretch of games.
If the past few meetings between these teams serve as an indicator, this will be a nail-biter. The Cowboys halted a fourth-quarter rally by the Saints in Jerry World last season for a 13-10 victory. In 2015, the Cowboys scored a game-tying touchdown inside the final two minutes of regulation only to allow Drew Brees to throw an 80-yard, catch-and-run pass to C.J. Spiller less than 20 seconds into overtime. In 2012, Tony Romo threw two touchdown passes in the final four minutes to force overtime yet he sat helplessly on the sideline as the Saints made a chip-shot field goal on the first possession of overtime.
Viewers should expect this contest to go down the final minute. Someone will score crucially very late in the fourth quarter. The only question is whether that score will force overtime.
Prediction: Cowboys 26, Saints 23
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.