by Scott Kacsmar
The two longest winning streaks in New Orleans franchise history have both been ended by the Dallas Cowboys on a national stage. In 2009, the 13-0 Saints hosted Dallas on a Saturday night only to fall behind quickly. DeMarcus Ware clinched the 24-17 win after forcing a Drew Brees fumble in the final seconds. Almost nine full years later, the Saints lost their 10-game winning streak in Dallas after a shocking 13-10 final on Thursday night. Brees threw a late interception to Jourdan Lewis this time. Prior to this game, Brees had been 53-0 as a starter in his career when his team allowed fewer than 16 points in a game.
There have been bigger upsets this season, but the way Dallas handed the eight-point favorites their first loss since Week 1 was very surprising. New Orleans' only loss this season had been to Tampa Bay by a 48-40 final. This was the seventh-lowest scoring game of the 2018 season.
Dallas even lost the turnover battle (2-1) and still held on for the win. Since 1970, teams scoring fewer than 14 points and losing the turnover battle had only won 4.2 percent of their games. The win rate for teams scoring exactly 13 points with exactly a -1 turnover margin is still dire at 16.3 percent. Dallas left the door open several times for the Saints to come back, but there was no magic this week.
In a special Friday edition of Clutch Encounters, we'll recap the 100th game with a comeback opportunity this season to see how the Cowboys pulled this one off.
If you are still fond of lock-down defense, then this was a good game to watch. The Dallas offense helped shrink the game with long drives so that each team only had nine possessions, but the Dallas defense really earned the victory by stonewalling an offense that was on a historic pace. The 2018 Saints were leading the league in yards per drive (43.45), points per drive (3.76), touchdowns per drive (.449), and even field goals per drive (.206). We are talking about the best numbers we've ever tracked there, and yet the No. 13 defense in DVOA held them in check all night.
Brees can still do a lot of damage with nine possessions, but Dallas played great coverage against his wide receivers. According to Next Gen Stats, 50 percent of Brees' passes to wideouts were into tight windows, a season-high and well above his average rate (20 percent). We saw it immediately as Brees started 0-for-4 passing for the first time in a game in his career. It wasn't a stellar night for the supporting cast either. Michael Thomas pleaded his case to Sean Payton to challenge a catch in the first quarter that proved to be a drop after FOX finally found a good angle of it. Brees' receivers dropped a season-high 7.1 percent of his targets, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Brees' accuracy wasn't woeful by any means, but he relied heavily on a dink-and-dunk approach as he attempted just one pass beyond 15 yards all night. Alvin Kamara had eight catches, but for only 36 yards as Dallas limited YAC well.
The running back duo of Kamara and Mark Ingram was held to 63 yards on 18 carries. Kamara was stuffed on a big fourth-and-1 at the Dallas 1 in the second quarter while the Saints trailed 10-0. That stop was a crucial turning point. The Saints had just recovered an Amari Cooper fumble and were 39 yards away from the end zone, but came away with zero points on the drive. Payton also burned his second and final challenge to get a completion that Dan Arnold fumbled, but was recovered by the Saints. Four plays later, Kamara was stuffed by Demarcus Lawrence, and the Dallas offense used the next 9:09 to put a field goal on the board for a 13-0 lead. Lawrence then sacked Brees to end any threat in the final minute of the half.
The Saints defense was not too shabby either and kept the offense in striking distance late. The box score for Dallas looks like an offense that should have scored more than 13 points: 21 first downs, 7-of-14 on third down, 100 rushing yards, and Dak Prescott completed 24-of-28 passes for 248 yards and a touchdown. However, Prescott also took seven sacks and lost a fumble. While he completed 18 passes in a row at one point, his success rate in the second half (33.3 percent) was barely half of what it was in building the 13-0 lead at halftime (63.6 percent).
Prescott's game was similar to what Marcus Mariota did on Monday night in Houston, and it's making us think that completion percentage is a dead stat as far as quarterback value goes. In fact, this is the third time this season that an offense completed at least 85 percent of its passes, but the team scored fewer than 20 points. That happened four times total from 1950 through 2017, and at least Ben Roethlisberger could criticize the unsuitable field for the 3-0 final against the 2007 Dolphins.
Tyron Smith was out at left tackle, and there were times where Prescott's pocket immediately collapsed and no one was open. But he also displayed some poor pocket awareness at times and took some sacks he shouldn't have. Ezekiel Elliott was generally held in check on the ground with 23 carries for 76 yards.
Battling the Refs
While Dallas basically tried to hang on for the game's final 20 minutes, it would be impossible not to mention the atrocious job the officiating crew did in that time. Walt Anderson's crew is supposed to be the most veteran group in the league, but this was some of the worst officiating of the season. Calls were missed both ways, so it wasn't any conspiracy against one team, but it was down-the-line incompetence that really threatened to ruin the outcome of this game.
After Dallas, now leading 13-3, thought it had stopped the Saints, Randy Gregory was penalized for roughing the punter to give New Orleans the ball back. It was a good call, and Gregory's second bad personal foul of the quarter. But three plays later, Brees threw his one deep pass of the night into the end zone in an area where he had two receivers, and Keith Kirkwood appeared to push off before making a 30-yard touchdown to make it 13-10 going into the fourth quarter.
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) November 30, 2018
That sure seemed like enough of an arm extension to warrant a call, which would have nullified the touchdown and made it third-and-17.
In the fourth quarter, Brees had his comeback opportunity, but it looked like it was going to be a repeat of 2009 with a big strip-sack by Lawrence where the ball was recovered at the New Orleans 35 with just over 12 minutes left. However, Gregory was penalized for lining up in the neutral zone. There's some evidence this call was good too, but it was so close that I'm not sure how the line judge ever spotted it. It also took a while for the flag to come out, which is unusual for an offsides call.
Offsides call was correct, can see helmet peeking over the line pic.twitter.com/yHQoXnHoPd
— Ben Baldwin (@benbbaldwin) November 30, 2018
That drive still didn't end in points, but it was surprising to see these referees swallow their whistles on third down after Kamara took a clear helmet-to-helmet shot from Jaylon Smith. There was no flag and the Saints punted. Isn't player safety supposed to be a thing this season?
— Deadspin (@Deadspin) November 30, 2018
Dallas took over with 9:15 left and engineered another long drive with several big third downs. Prescott had an excellent scramble for 11 yards on third-and-10, showing he can run with power too. Weak officiating and Payton's bad challenge night came back to haunt the Saints after Cole Beasley was clearly short on a third-and-5 completion that was gifted a good spot for another first down. Payton couldn't challenge. Prescott was pulled down by the facemask, which was missed, but the officials didn't miss the hit to his face on a third down on the very next play. That penalty gave the Cowboys a fresh set of downs, but they were very conservative in the red zone when a touchdown would have sealed the game.
At least the officiating didn't spoil the final minutes.
The Failed Comeback
On third-and-5 at the New Orleans 6, Prescott was sacked by Cameron Jordan, who also got the fumble despite being held on the play. It's a bad play by Prescott, of course, but it's not the worst turnover in the world. By keeping the game at 13-10 instead of 16-10, maybe the Saints would get conservative and settle for a game-tying field goal to go to overtime. Down 16-10, Brees would have been looking for the game-winning touchdown. Still, he was in a reasonable spot at his own 15 with 2:35 left.
After a short completion, the drive took a weird turn. Brees felt some pressure from the interior and flicked a short throw out to Kamara, who was clearly not expecting that throw in that spot. Jourdan Lewis was there for a diving interception, the second of his career.
— Adam Collins (@AdamCollinsCN) November 30, 2018
With 2:08 left, the Saints were down to one timeout. After a Dallas run, Payton immediately used his timeout at 2:03, which didn't make sense. That invited Dallas to throw for the win on second down since the clock was going to stop no matter what for the two-minute warning. A quick slant would have been good, but Prescott threw to Cooper in the end zone. It was incomplete, but Marshon Lattimore was penalized for pass interference, effectively ending the game with a first down at the 1. The call looked iffy at first, but Lattimore never looked for the ball and grabbed Cooper's left arm, so that call was legitimate.
The Saints finished with 176 yards of offense, their fewest in a game in the Brees/Payton era. Dallas has not allowed more than 28 points in 18 straight games, the longest active streak in the NFL, but none of those performances have been more impressive than this one.
Where Do Things Go From Here?
Dallas (7-5) should have some restored confidence in this season, and could take a huge step towards winning the NFC East with a victory over the Eagles next week. Of course, given the nature of the Jason Garrett era, they could flop in that one after winning this game no one expected them to win. You should never get too high or too low on the Cowboys, but the defense is increasingly deserving of respect.
This game makes you pause on the Saints (10-2), who are now in danger of losing the top seed to the Rams (10-1). Payton is likely out of the Coach of the Year discussion after his game mismanagement, but Brees may have done the most damage to winning his first MVP award over Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes. After Week 12, Brees had taken over as the odds-on MVP favorite, and he was leading the league in passing DYAR, DVOA, and ESPN's QBR. He'll drop with his worst game of the season, and if Mahomes can be criticized for turnovers in a 54-51 game against the Rams, surely Brees should get more criticism for a 13-10 loss where he threw a late pick and only had 127 passing yards.
That last number may be the most troubling part of this for New Orleans. The 127 passing yards are the second-fewest Brees has had in a full game for the Saints since 2006. His lowest game was in Minnesota in Week 8 (120 yards). He had 171 yards against Atlanta on Thanksgiving, which is tied for his sixth-lowest game. While it's true that the Saints still won those first two games and they have based their offense more around the run, we're still talking about Brees here, the NFL's all-time passing king. He used to walk into stadiums with 200 yards in the bank. The fact is, he has had three of his six lowest passing games since 2006 all come in the last six weeks, and when he's weeks away from turning 40, that might be a big deal.
Three-quarters of the way through what has arguably been Brees' most efficient NFL season, one has to wonder if there's a cliff coming up much sooner than expected. It happened quickly to Peyton Manning in 2014 despite what was statistically one of his best starts ever. Having both played on Thanksgiving, both teams had a week to prepare for this one, so Brees' performance wasn't just an old quarterback playing on four days of rest.
Brees' next game is at Tampa Bay, the 32nd-ranked pass defense. He might throw for 500 yards and six touchdowns in that one to make this talk look real silly, but his production going forward is worth keeping an eye on given his age. The Cowboys were really the first defense to put the clamps on Thomas and contain the run this year, and Brees and Payton weren't able to counter. The Saints lack some of the playmaker depth that the other top offenses have this season, so that too can be a big story going forward.
Ultimately, it was just nice to see that a game in 2018 between probable division winners can still end 13-10 and -- referees aside -- be enjoyable to watch.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 47
Game-winning drives: 58 (plus three non-offensive game-winning scores)
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 100/177 (56.5 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 25
Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro Football Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass. Game-Winning Chance (win probability) data is from EdjSports.