NFL Playoffs: Saints Focus on Super Bowl
Just before the two-minute warning Saturday night, the conditions were ripe for another dramatic comeback performance by the New Orleans Saints.
In winning their first 13 games, the Saints rolled with one rally after another.
They overcame a 21-point deficit at Miami in Week 7, a 14-point hole against Carolina in Week 9. They survived in overtime at Washington in Week 13, aided by an improbable missed field goal late in the fourth quarter.
So one more comeback almost seemed expected at the Louisiana Superdome— especially after struggling Dallas Cowboys kicker Nick Folk had a chip-shot, 24-yard field goal attempt clang off the right upright with 2:16 on the clock.
Said Saints quarterback Drew Brees, "We felt like there was no doubt … it was going to OT."
But a different type of destiny, dressed as DeMarcus Ware, caught up with the Saints.
Ware's hit on Brees forced the fumble, recovered by Jay Ratliff with six seconds left, that sealed a 24-17 Cowboys victory that ruined the Saints' hope for a perfect season.
"You don't know how many chances you're going to get at that," Brees said. "We've fought so hard to get where we're at. You just feel like we deserved it, and the city deserved it, and the organization deserved it. We wanted to make it happen for all of them."
While the Saints no longer threaten to surpass the ultimate mark of perfect established by Don Shula's 1972 Miami Dolphins (17-0) as the NFL's only undefeated champion, they see the big picture.
A Super Bowl crown remains in range. And the Saints (13-1) can still clinch a No. 1 seed that would allow them to host the NFC title game.
"We still have that first seed in sight," Brees said. "We want to be playing our best football going into the playoffs."
Saturday night's setback might have underscored a bigger concern than losing a perfect record. The Cowboys (9-5) rushed for 145 yards against an injury-challenged Saints defense that has the look of a unit wearing down as the season progresses. Dallas' rushing game — which included Marion Barber's first two scoring runs in seven weeks — helped amass 36 minutes, 26 seconds of possession that kept the Saints offense on the sidelines.
But there was another crucial element behind the huge clock advantage: Defense.
Led by Ware, whose playing status was a game time decision just six days after he was carted off the field with a neck injury suffered during a loss to San Diego, the Cowboys allowed the Saints to covert just one of seven third downs.
Third down. That was pretty much the only situation when Dallas deployed Ware, who could barely move his neck on Monday and didn't practice all week.
With fresh legs, he consistently beat left tackle Jermon Bushrod to apply heat on Brees. Ware collected two of Dallas' four sacks (fellow linebacker Anthony Spencer had the other sacks) and forced two fumbles.
"DeMarcus made a big difference," said Cowboys coach Wade Phillips, whose squad maintained control of its playoff destiny by snapping a two-game losing streak.
The Cowboys, whose NFL-longest streak of 12 consecutive non-winning Decembers left them desperate and disparaged, set a tone with early urgency.
While the defense forced three-and-outs on the Saints' first two possessions, the Cowboys offense quickly found its rhythm. Tony Romo's 49-yard touchdown pass to Miles Austin (7 catches, 139 yards) capped Dallas' first possession, and Barber's 3-yard TD dive finished a 60-yard drive for a 14-0 jumpstart.
"As great as they are, we really feel good about our offense," said Romo, who completed 22 of 34 passes for 312 yards and notched his fourth consecutive game without an interception. "Everybody was talking about them, and nobody was talking about us. And I think, as a team, that motivated us a lot."
New Orleans can lament blown chances. In the third quarter, a wide open Devery Henderson had a 36-yard strike bounce off his knee in the end zone. The drive ended with a punt. Before halftime, Brees' underthrown pass for Henderson from the Dallas 41 was intercepted by Mike Jenkins. And the next drive provided an omen: On a Ware hit, Brees fumbled, with Spencer's recovery setting up a field goal.
"We definitely didn't play our best game," said Saints receiver Marques Colston. "Just like any win, you get a day to digest it, make corrections and move on."