Division leaders face off in Dallas to get Week 13 started
Fresh off of victories on Thanksgiving, NFC division leaders New Orleans and Dallas are set to play on Thursday for a second consecutive week.
The Saints (10-1) extended their winning streak to 10 games last Thursday with a 31-17 victory over NFC South rival Atlanta. New Orleans has been getting it done on both sides of the ball, as the offense leads the NFL at 37.2 points per game and the defense has shown steady improvement, allowing a total of 38 points over the last three contests.
The Cowboys (6-5) have won three in a row and while they and Washington are tied atop the NFC East at 6-5, Dallas is currently in first (due to a better divisional record) thanks to a 31-23 victory over the Redskins on Thanksgiving. The Cowboys also improved to 4-1 at AT&T Stadium.
Dallas leads the all-time series between these two teams 16-12, but New Orleans has won four of the five most recent meetings.
New Orleans at Dallas
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 29 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: FOX/NFL Network
Spread: Saints -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Who will serve as Drew Brees’ favorite target(s) this week?
Two games ago versus Philadelphia, Tre’Quan Smith experienced the most successful performance of his rookie season. He had 10 receptions after catching a total of 12 passes in his first nine games, for 157 yards and a touchdown. But he also sustained a foot injury in that game, which prevented him from playing last week against Atlanta.
So with Smith sidelined and fellow receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Cameron Meredith (as well as Dez Bryant, who didn't even get to play in a game after signing with the Saints in early November) already on injured reserve, who did Brees throw to?
Michael Thomas is a great place to start, as he's second in the NFL in receptions (86) and fourth in yards (1,080) but defenses know this and focus on limiting the damage he does as much as possible.
So all Brees did was spread the ball around against the Falcons, completing at least one pass to eight different players. He also had four touchdown passes, none of which were caught by Thomas or running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram or even veteran tight end Benjamin Watson. Instead, the touchdowns were caught by Dan Arnold, Austin Carr, Keith Kirkwood and Tommylee Lewis. None of these guys were drafted, and entering this game they had combined for two career touchdowns.
Dallas knows it will have to account for Thomas at all times, but as last week showed, this offense is still dangerous through the air even if no one knows who Brees is throwing the ball to.
2. Can Ezekiel Elliott find room to run against the Saints?
Elliott has had an outstanding season so far. He leads the NLF in both rushing yards (1,074) and attempts (217). He has eight total touchdowns (six rushing) and is averaging close to five yards per carry (4.9).
Elliott's production has opened up things for Dak Prescott and the passing game, especially since the Cowboys acquired wide receiver Amari Cooper via trade. Cooper is coming off of his best game in a Dallas uniform, posting eight receptions for 180 yards and two touchdowns (one a 40-yard pass, the other an 80-yard play) in the Thanksgiving win over Washington.
But New Orleans knows that Elliott is the engine that runs the Cowboys' offense and the Saints enter Week 13 first in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing 73.2 yards per game and just 3.6 yards per carry (tied for first). New Orleans has given up more than 93 yards on the ground in a game to just two teams (Tampa Bay, Cincinnati) this season. With Elliott leading the way, Dallas is sixth in the league at 134.5 rushing yards per game.
3. Are the Saints due for a letdown?
Thanks to its lengthy winning streak, New Orleans currently maintains a four-game lead in the NFC South over second-place Carolina with just five games remaining. The Saints also are currently first in the NFC thanks to their head-to-head win a couple of weeks ago against the Los Angeles Rams.
In contrast, the Cowboys are locked in a tight divisional race. They currently lead the NFC East courtesy of a better divisional record, but the top three teams are separated by just one game right now. Dallas knows it cannot let up with so many other teams hovering around the 6-5 mark right now and two other division leaders currently nursing four-game leads. It looks like the race for the two wild-card spots will go down to the wire, making every victory, especially ones against playoff contenders, critically important.
This game recalls the time these two teams faced each other with a few weeks left in the 2009 season. The Saints entered that Week 15 game having won its first 13 games and seemingly on their way to being the top seed in the NFC. The Cowboys were 8-5 after losing its past two games. So what happened that Saturday in the Superdome? Tony Romo outplayed Brees and the Dallas left with a 24-17 victory. Will history repeat itself on Thursday night? (While both teams made the playoffs that season, Saints fans will always remember the 2009 season for how it ended.)
The Saints are on the verge of winning the NFC South. In fact, they can clinch the division with a win over Dallas and a Carolina loss to Tampa Bay on Sunday. It's just a matter of when and not if, but New Orleans will be in the playoffs.
That's not the case for the Cowboys, who are in a dogfight in the NFC East with Washington and Philadelphia. A crowded wild-card picture only adds to the need for Dallas to keep winning so expect the Cowboys to come out fired up looking to make a statement early.
This game should be competitive and fairly close, but expect the visiting team to take control in the fourth quarter and extend their winning streak to 11 in a row.
Prediction: Saints 34, Cowboys 24
— 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.