The arm of Drew Brees and the arms of Malcolm Jenkins were golden. Reggie Bush, making his healthy return from a ten week absence, was a turkey.
The Saints won a thrilling team debut on Thanksgiving Day over the Cowboys in Dallas, 30-27.
Brees found 89 of his 164 second half pass yards on a lead-taking, game-clinching drive with less than three minutes left. Three huge completions, 22 yards to Marques Colston, 55 to Robert Meachem and the final 12 to Lance Moore, moved the Saints from their own 11 yard line to 8-3 on the season.
It was how the Saints got the ball at their own 11 that is as big a story as Brees' laser-guided throws.
After jumping on the Cowboys 20-6 at halftime but surrendering a 60-yard end-around touchdown run by WR Miles Austin on the second snap of the half, the Saints began bleeding momentum.
The Saints could have reclaimed some of that momentum on their first drive of the second half, but Reggie Bush dropped a certain touchdown pass. The route was very similar to the pass that Bush scored on in San Francisco, his last active game. Ten weeks later, Bush let Brees' pass slip through is hands, and two split Cowboy defenders breathed a sigh of relief.
Hartley's 28 yard field goal did little to prevent Dallas from thinking they could get back in this game after being embarrassed in the first quarter.
The Saints defense forced a punt on the Cowboys' next drive, but one more opportunity to reclaim the momentum was shot. On the punt return, Bush, after reversing and crossing the field, let a defender punch the ball free. The Cowboys recovered at the Saint 15, and six plays later punched it into the end zone on 4th and 1, breaking a Saint goal line stand. The Cowboys had pulled to within three, 23-20, and had been spared the worst of the Saints' attack by two Reggie Bush gaffes.
Brees and the Saints moved to the Cowboys' 34 yard line on their next drive but misfired on a pass to Moore on 4th and 5 at the end of the third quarter. Advantage, Cowboys. The next Cowboys drive also played into Dallas' favor- a sack fumble by Will Smith was recovered by TE Martellus Bennett, and a botched snap was kicked off the turf for a 29 yard punt instead of being downed near midfield. The Cowboys' luck just wouldn't die.
Three plays later, Brees fired deep over the middle for rookie TE Jimmy Graham. The pass was a bit high, but it glanced off of Graham's hands and into the waiting arms of safety Gerald Sensabaugh, who opted to sign in Dallas instead of New Orleans during the 2009 offseason. Sensabaugh returned the pick to the Saint 39. Two plays later, rookie CB Patrick Robinson let slip WR Roy Williams on a quick hit down to the Saint 14. Five plays later, the Cowboys again broke a Saint goal line stand with a one-yard plunge by RB Tashard Choice with 5:56 left in the game. The Cowboys had ridden their luck to an improbable 27-23 lead late in the fourth quarter.
On the next drive, the Cowboys got to Brees with the pass rush, and DT Jay Ratliff buried Brees for a drive-killing seven yard loss. The Cowboys had the ball, the lead, and all the momentum in the world with 4:10 left in the game.
That's when Malcolm Jenkins took the game into his own hands.
On 3rd and six, Jon Kitna, the Cowboys backup quarterback who played very well in the second half, hit Roy Williams for a breakaway down the middle of the field. 47 yards down the field and at his own 11, Jenkins took down and ripped the ball out of Williams' arms and ripped the game back from the Cowboys.
The rest is history. Brees took over from his own 11 and five plays later took the lead.
After the game, inactive Saints FS Darren Sharper referred to Jenkins as his protégé, and the play as "Play of the Year".
Kitna took over again after the kickoff with 1:50 left, and moved his team to the Saint 41, just outside of K David Buehler's range. But Kitna fired incomplete three straight times for rookie WR Dez Bryant. Interim head coach Jason Garrett opted to go for the tie and the 59-yard field goal attempt, which dropped over the crossbars but outside the left upright. The Saints kneeled away the final seconds of their Thanksgiving day thriller.
The Saints had completed the comeback that was as improbable as the Cowboys' awakening into the game. Gregg Williams' defense forced a game-opening turnover when DE Will Smith picked off a pass thrown to the flat right at him. The defense then forced a punt and a failed fourth down conversion while the offense piled up a 17-0 lead in the second quarter. The Cowboys collected to field goals in the second quarter, including one on a drive in the final 43 seconds when the Cowboys moved into position for a 53-yard field goal by Buehler.
Brees made it look easy, moving the Saints on the opening kickoff quickly with gains of 14 to Graham, 12 to Henderson and then an unbelievable catch by a falling-backwards Henderson moved them 57 yards downfield to the Dallas 7. Chris Ivory cashed it in two plays later on his first carry of the game. Two drives later, Brees hit Henderson again for a big gainer of 22 yards and Ivory ran it in from six yards out for his first multi-touchdown game as a pro and a 17-0 lead.
Garrett used two wise replay challenges to overturn a Henderson touchdown (ruled down by contact) and then to overturn a Miles Austin fumble, which would have given the ball to the Saints at the Dallas 29. The Cowboys kept that drive alive and moved to the Saint 21 before turning it over on downs with a failed 4th and 1 run. The next Cowboys drive would be struck by a bad snap by C Andre Gurode, who really struggled on the day. The Cowboys got their first field goal after the Saints defense held on 1st and 10 at their own 12.
Brees had 352 yards passing on the day, 172 of them on the first and last drives of the game. Colston and Henderson combined for 202 yards on 10 receptions, and although Robert Meachem found only one ball thrown his way, he made it count. Meachem's 55 yard catch via a streak route on 3rd and 10 kept the Saints' game-winning drive alive. Meachem scorched the Cowboy's best defensive back, CB Terrance Newman, down the right sideline.
Ivory found 38 efficient yards on 7 carries, but former Cowboy Julius Jones found 10 carries for 45 hard-worked yards. The last two games Jones ran against former teammates.
Reggie Bush's rough return from injury was very forgettable. He received one carry, for one yard, and caught a fade-pattern in the flat for a 12-yard gain. But his dropped touchdown pass and fumbled punt return appeared to see him benched late in the game. Bush was only in on that punt return because of a hard hit suffered by Lance Moore, and Bush was replaced by CB Tracy Porter following his fumble.
It was a good day for K Garrett Hartley, who was amidst a swarm of criticism after last week's short-range miss. Hartley hit all three extra points and three field goal attempts, including long-range shots from 45 and 50 yards and later a 28-yarder. Those long range shots hooked to the left inside the goal posts, as is the trend for him. The all-Westlake Carroll HS team of new long snapper Justin Drescher, holder Chase Daniel and Hartley was perfect on the day, tough one of Drescher's snaps was very high.
The Saints won their first ever Thanksgiving Day game on national television and move to 8-3 on the season, keeping pace with the 8-2 Falcons and 7-3 Bucs in the NFC South. The Saints are now 3-2 all time in Thursday games.