After each losing on Thanksgiving, the Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans will have a chance for redemption one Thursday later when they meet at the Caesars Superdome in prime time.
Fortunately for the Cowboys (7-4), they have finished their matchups with the AFC West. On Thanksgiving Day, Dallas dropped its third game against members of that division. That loss accounted for the Cowboys' third defeat in less than four weeks.
Meanwhile, the Saints (5-6) only scored six points against the Bills. That equaled their lowest total during Sean Payton's tenure. The Texans held them to just two field goals at Houston on Nov. 29, 2015. New Orleans has now lost four in a row to fall below .500 for the first time this season.
Despite their losses, both teams are squarely in the NFC playoff picture. Dallas has a two-game cushion over Washington in the NFC East, while New Orleans is one of four 5-6 teams in a virtual tie for the seventh seed.
The Cowboys lead the all-time series, 17-13, although the Saints hold a 9-6 advantage in New Orleans. The franchises faced each other eight times in the previous 12 seasons, with the Saints winning five of those matchups.
Thursday Night Football: Dallas (7-4) vs. New Orleans (5-6)
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 2 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Cowboys -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. How will the absence of some members affect the Cowboys?
The Cowboys will travel to New Orleans without head coach Mike McCarthy, offensive line coach Joe Philbin, assistant offensive line coach Jeff Blasko, and right tackle Terence Steele. All tested positive for COVID-19. They have already had to deal with eight other players and another assistant coach missing at least one game this season.
The Saints faced a similar problem in September when heading to play at Carolina. Eight assistant coaches had to miss the game against the Panthers, including five involved with the offense. Those absences contributed to the offense gaining only 159 yards and not scoring until the fourth quarter. As a result, they suffered a 26-7 debacle.
Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn will serve as Dallas' head coach. He should be able to handle that role due to his 85 games of experience directing an NFL team. He led the Falcons to a 43-42 record from 2015 to '20. He has plenty of experience coaching head-to-head against Payton, compiling a 4-6 record.
2. Can Taysom Hill spark the Saints' offense?
Trevor Siemian had started the four games since Jameis Winston's season-ending injury versus Tampa Bay. Since all of those ended in defeat, he has received much of the blame. His critics overlook the injuries plaguing a few starting offensive linemen, resulting in eight sacks. He lacked the offense's most valuable player, Alvin Kamara, in the last three contests. Additionally, the wide receivers have largely responded to the absence of All-Pro Michael Thomas by routinely dropping easily catchable passes. Nevertheless, Payton is looking for someone to re-energize the Saints' offense.
Hill is expected to start instead of Siemian despite a lingering foot injury that has limited him to just seven games in his multi-purpose role during this season. However, he has attempted only eight passes, completing seven of those for 56 yards, an interception, and no touchdowns. In 2020, he replaced Drew Brees in four games, completing 82 of 114 pass attempts for 834 yards, four touchdowns, and two interceptions.
The Cowboys have been more vulnerable through the air than on the ground, and they rank 27th in the league with 262.3 passing yards allowed per game. However, they do rank third in the NFL with 15 interceptions, eight of which come from Trevon Diggs. This should be a great opportunity for Hill to show whether he can be a starter going forward.
3. What is Ezekiel Elliott's level of availability?
Elliott has been suffering from a bruised knee since the Week 4 win over Carolina in early October. His rushing contributions have declined over the course of the seven games after the injury. He did compile 41 carries for 253 yards and two scores in that and the following game against the Giants. Then, he rushed 17 times for 69 yards at New England. His workload diminished in the next three games while his yardage peaked at 51. He carried the ball only nine times in each of the last two games for just 32 and 25 yards, respectively.
In contrast, his receiving statistics have increased, starting with that contest in New England. He had caught only nine passes in the five games before facing the Patriots. In New England, he hauled in seven passes for 50 yards in his most productive game as a receiver. In the five contests since then, he had at least three receptions for an average of 24.6 yards per game. Will the Cowboys shift their game planning to use him more as a receiver and leave most of the carries to someone else?
If the Cowboys do limit Elliott's workload, they have a rather capable backup in Tony Pollard, who has out-performed Elliott in each of his three years in Dallas. Pollard is averaging 5.3 yards per attempt, which is fifth in the NFL among players with at least 100 carries. However, both running backs should have a tough challenge ahead against the Saints, who hold opponents to a league-low 3.4 yards per attempt.
Despite losses in three of their four most recent games, the Cowboys' postseason aspirations remain realistic. They hold a two-game lead over Washington and a 2-0 record in divisional games. However, they cannot afford to look past this matchup and ahead to the two games versus Washington in the next three weeks.
The Saints' hopes for the playoffs are fading. They trail Tampa Bay in the NFC South by three games. If the regular season were already completed after last weekend, they would not have qualified for the playoffs. They would have lost the tiebreaker for the final playoff spot due to an inferior record in conference games. Therefore, they need to win this game to boost their record versus NFC teams.
Prediction: Cowboys 20, Saints 17
— 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.