Cowboys' path to playoffs becomes clearer after stunning upset of Saints

ARLINGTON, Texas -- In 2009, the Dallas Cowboys went to the Superdome with their season on the line against the undefeated New Orleans Saints and left with a win that propelled them to an 11-5 finish and a wild-card playoff victory.

On Thursday, the Cowboys faced a Saints team that came to AT&T Stadium with a 10-game winning streak and was considered perhaps the best in the NFL. The Cowboys had some momentum of their own and pulled off a signature 13-10 win that gives them an 80.2 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The Cowboys have won four straight -- after a 3-5 start -- for the first time since 2016 and when they return to action Dec. 9 against the Philadelphia Eagles, they know they will remain in first place in the NFC East with four games to play.

"The defense played beyond my expectations," owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. "They played like a championship defense."

It was not a pretty affair, but there were enough magical moments for Dallas -- almost all from the defense. The Cowboys are now allowing 18.6 points per game, which is second-best in the NFL behind only the Ravens (18.0), according to ESPN Stats & Info.

“It was a collective effort," Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith said. "The one thing about our defense, what makes us elite, is that we run to the ball like no other team. We put that on display.”

The offense was stifled for most of the night, and the defense sealed the win with a Jourdan Lewis interception with 2 minutes, 35 seconds to play. A pass interference penalty against the Saints allowed Dak Prescott to take a knee and kill the clock.

In their first 11 games, the Cowboys used their dime package sparingly, which cut back on Lewis’ snaps. He nearly had a pick on the first series of the game, but he did not let the ball get out of his grasp in the fourth quarter.

As Cowboys coach Jason Garrett and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli waxed poetic about the Saints' offense all week -- and with good reason -- there was always a feeling that the Cowboys' defense was ready for a breakout performance.

On the first series, Anthony Brown, Chidobe Awuzie and Lewis had pass breakups. In the first half, the defense kept the Saints out of the end zone, coming up with a stifling goal-line stand in the second quarter, stopping the Saints on four plays from their 7. On fourth-and-goal from the 1, DeMarcus Lawrence tracked down Alvin Kamara from behind and Tyrone Crawford set up a wall in front to change over the possession. Entering the game, the Saints had converted 11 of 12 fourth-down opportunities.

Lawrence effectively ended the half with a sack of Saints quarterback Drew Brees, forcing a fumble that the quarterback recovered.

There were wobbly moments in the second half with the Saints scoring on their first two possessions. Randy Gregory had three penalties, including a roughing the punter penalty that allowed the Saints to keep their drive alive. Brees capitalized with his only touchdown pass of the game.

On the next possession, Gregory lined up in the neutral zone, wiping out a Crawford fumble recovery after a Lawrence sack.

While the defense in the past may have cracked, this defense stiffened. Brown sacked Brees for an 8-yard loss with a blitz off the edge. Leighton Vander Esch stoned Mark Ingram in the flat for a 1-yard gain. On third down, Smith hammered Kamara short of the first-down marker.

Vander Esch and Smith combined for 19 tackles.

As well as the defense played, they needed more magic after Prescott was sacked for the seventh time with Brees, the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards and second in touchdown passes, staring at them.

It didn’t take long for the Cowboys' defense to end the threat with Lewis stepping underneath for his first interception of the season.

The Saints gained 176 yards, picked up just 14 first downs, converting three of 11 third-down chances. It was the Saints' fewest yards in a game since Week 17 of 2001.

The Cowboys' defense, which was fourth in points allowed entering the game, stole the headlines and took a big step toward the postseason.