Unbeaten Saints brace for desperate Cowboys

Dec 19, 2009 - 5:01 AM By BRETT MARTEL AP Sports Writer

NEW ORLEANS(AP) -- As far as Drew Brees can tell, the season of giving in New Orleans started about 14 weeks ago.

Brees and the Saints have given this football-mad city more tastes of victory than it has ever known in a single season. The fans have responded in their own way when the players drive home from games, windows down, to share in the excitement.

"I got some pralines thrown in (the car) the other day, T shirts, CDs," Brees began. "It's like Christmas. It is Christmas. ... I think it's great how excited people are. Everybody wants to be a part of this and everybody deserves to be a part of this, because so many fans have been waiting for this for a long time."

New Orleans has long been associated with Super Bowls, but not the Saints, who are one of five teams never to appear in the NFL's marquee game.

The Dallas Cowboys, on the other hand, solidified their reputation as America's Team by winning two Super Bowls in New Orleans, the second of those in the Louisiana Superdome, where they'll meet the 13-0 Saints on Saturday night in a game carrying postseason implications for both teams.

The urgency is greater for the Cowboys (8-5), who trail Philadelphia in the NFC East and could miss the playoffs if they don't finish strong.

"We need this game," Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo said. "This is an important game for us and our season, where we are in the standings, so we're going to come out and hopefully play our best football game of the year.

"I know that guys are working their butt off and putting in the time," Romo said. "The preparation is there. We'll see what kind of team we've got."

New Orleans has clinched a first-round playoff bye, but has yet to wrap up what could be the franchise's first No. 1 overall seed in the NFC.

Then there's the matter of finishing the regular season undefeated, which may not count for much toward the ultimate goal of a championship (as the New England Patriots found out two seasons ago), but still seems important to the Saints.

"You don't have many opportunities like this, do you?" Brees said. "It's something to consider."

The Saints seemed all but invincible when they demolished New England on Monday Night Football 38-17 a few weeks ago. Lately, however, they've looked more vulnerable, nearly losing the chance to be the first NFC team to go 16-0 two weeks ago when they trailed late at Washington. New Orleans stormed back to win in overtime after the Redskins missed a field goal that could have iced the game.

Last weekend, the Saints held off the struggling Atlanta Falcons 26-23. Again, the result begged the question of whether New Orleans, which won nine of its first 11 games by double digits, is wearing down.

Injuries have hurt the defense, which has dropped to 21st in the NFL in yards allowed per game (347.6). Starting cornerbacks Jabari Greer (sports hernia) and Tracy Porter (right knee sprain) both have been out for about a month. Starting linebacker Scott Fujita also has missed the past two games with an infection in his knee.

If defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is worried, he's not showing it.

"We've played well enough to win and the big thing is that we still do a good job of attacking the ball," Williams said. "You can measure a lot of things, but you can't really measure a person's will. Our guys' strength and resolve at the end of ball games have been really good. We've let a couple of big plays hit us here the last couple weeks. ... We have to minimize those shots down the field."

Dallas has to figure out how to play better in December. With their two-game losing streak, the Cowboys have fallen to 3-8 in December games in three seasons under coach Wade Phillips.

"We're in playoff contention right now. That's the most important thing," Phillips said. "It's not about me. It's about this football team. We've won a lot of games here already. We hope to win some more. We have 30 wins already in three years and we'd like to win some more and get in the playoffs. That's our goal."

They can take a confidence-building step by winning against the Saints in a game that carries a number of subplots. Romo and Saints coach Sean Payton are friends who both played quarterback at Eastern Illinois. While Payton was an assistant coach at Dallas, he was influential in Romo's early development as a pro.

Since Payton came to New Orleans, their teams have faced each other once, in 2006, and the Saints won 42-17.

It was a nationally televised night game, much like this matchup, and it was one of Reggie Bush's best games as a pro. Bush turned a screen pass into a spectacular, weaving, 61-yard touchdown that night. He remembers the game well and figures a number of Cowboys players do as well.

"We're expecting them to give it everything they've got," said Bush, who scored a pair of touchdowns on short passes in Atlanta last Sunday. "They're trying to get to the playoffs and we know this game is really important to them and it's really important to us. ... It's a national stage. It's already hyped up. I'm sure they remember us playing them a few years ago and they would like to get a little revenge."

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