December 10, 2006

Student Whups Teacher, 42-17

Sean Payton thoroughly outcoaches mentor Bill Parcells as Saints smash Cowboys

What can be said about the Saints will be more than what will be said. A stunning, dominating and almost laughable destruction of NFC powerhouse Dallas and their host of offensive and defensive weapons is to date one of the most impressive victories in franchise history.

It came on a national stage, in mid-December and with the Saints' rookie head coach going up against his mentor.

It came on a night when the Saints' injury report was filled with key performer and when the Cowboys listed zero players on theirs.

It came on a night when the Saints' unheralded but irreplacable fullback, Mike Karney, not only scored his first touchdown in 44 career games, but his second and third career touchdowns.

The game started poorly for the Saints, who allowed a sack on their first drive and allowed a 77-yard touchdown run on the Cowboys' second play from scrimmage. On the Saints' second drive, they punted again, and appeared to be having protection problems against DeMarcus Ware and the Cowboys' speedy defense.

The defense settled down and figured out the Cowboy attack on the second drive, beginning their shutdown performance of Julius Jones that would allow only 39 more rushing yards to Jones through the rest of the game. Young star QB Tony Romo, on a four game win streak and with the NFL's top quarterback rating, would also succumb to the Saints' well-coached defense. Romo would one-hop passes to receivers, throw the ball far out of bounds or into double coverage multiple times, although he would find 249 yards in the air as the Cowboys almost completely abandoned their run game in the second half.

The Saints got their offense on track at the second of the first quarter. After forcing the Cowboys to punt, Drew Brees began a six minute, 44 second drive at his own 12. We came to realize then the Saints' secret weapon of the night in underrated fullback Mike Karney, who had 14 catches through 12 games so far. Karney caught a nine yard dumpoff pass and carried the ball for an eight yard gain on the first two plays of the drive, and would later turn a pass in the left flat into a 12 yard gain.

Brees kept that drive alive by getting rookie WR Marques Colston into the game. The rookie from Hofstra had missed most of three straight games because of an ankle injury, but turned Brees' first pass of the game into a 10-yard first down and was the target of seven Brees passes, even after going down with an apparent leg cramp and returning. Three of Colston's five catches went for first downs as the Saints' seventh round pick returned to the starting lineup, which still lacked Joe Horn (groin tear).

Later in the Saints' first scoring drive, Payton showed off a style of offensive playcalling that was always unpredictable and rarely unsuccessful. On fourth and one from the Dallas 39, Payton called an end-around to WR Devery Henderson, who gathered three yards on the daring play. On the next play, the Saints' good fortune continued as Drew Brees was sacked by Ware, but the Cowboys were guilty of defensive holding and the drive continued.

The Karneyvore, the Saints' fourth round pick in 2004 who had 15 rushing attempts in three years before Sunday, wasn't done. The Saints spread the field and called Karney's number on the inside handoff. Karney busted through the line and walked into the end zone for his first career touchdown, equaling his collegiate touchdown production.

The score tied at 7-7, Tony Romo went deep for Terrell Owens, but was way off. Then, he went deep for Terry Glenn, but found Saints strong safety Omar Stoutmire, who stumbled and returned the ball to the Dallas 39. Deuce McAllister, who had his second straight 100 yard game, powered the Saints to the Dallas 2, with the help of completions to Marques Colston, newcomer TE John Owens and WR Terrance Copper.

That's when Karney struck again. The burly fullback slipped to the left flat after play action, and Brees found him at the goalline for Karney's second career touchdown and a 14-7 lead.

On the next Cowboy possession, Will Smith made two plays to end the drive. On second down, Smith was there with his teammates to sack Romo for a ten yard loss. Smith then drew a holding penalty on a pass that was deep incomplete anyway. Smith now has 10.5 sacks on the year and returned successfully from his knee injury that kept him out of last week's game.

The teams exchanged punts before the Saints launched another lengthy scoring drive at their own five yard line with 4:04 left in the half. McAllister powered his way on three carries for 14 yards while Brees hit Colston and Reggie Bush for 12 yards, then scrambling, found Bush for a 25-yard improvised catch and run that moved the Saints to the Dallas 32. An offensive pass interference penalty on Devery Henderson on the next play moved the Saints back, but the refs would play an even bigger role in the next series of events.

Brees appeared to hit reserve WR Jamal Jones down the middle on a strike to the Dallas 22 on second and twenty. Jones went up, caught the ball, came down on both knees and appeared to fumble on the ball, which he quickly recovered. With :50 seconds left on the clock, the iffy call went up to the replay booth, but it was veteran coach and future Hall of Famer who made the rookie coach mistake, not Payton. Parcells through his red challenge flag out onto the field anyway to dispute the call.

Referee Gerry Austin announced that Jones never had control and the pass was incomplete, but then through the crowd's cheers, announced a 15-yard penalty on the Dallas bench for unsportsmanlike conduct, hitting Parcells for throwing his challenge flag inside the two minute warning.

First down at the Dallas 27, Brees went right back to Jones and allowed the rarely-used special teamer to redeem himself. Jones caught the pass down the left seam, spun away from an ankle tackle and danced into the end zone for his first career touchdown. The 5'11 dreadlocked reserve, who has been guilty of some mental gaffes this season on offense, made only his third career catch and put the Saints up 21-7 with seconds remaining in the first half.

Tony Romo got the ball back and caught a break after former Cowboys kicker Billy Cundiff's kickoff went out of bounds near the ten yard line, and another break when Mike McKenzie hopped up from his well-defended pass and got in Terrell Owens' facemask with some jaw-jacking that drew a 15-yard taunting penalty. Romo hit Glenn for 12 yards to set up Martin Gramatica's 43 yard field goal attempt to end the half. But the newly signed kicker's attempt was wide right, and the Saints entered the locker room up by two touchdowns and in complete possession of the game's momentum, against a team they were underdogs by seven points.

Dallas gained some of that momentum back by driving down for a field goal to open the second half, but Drew Brees had a big response in store. For a team like the Saints that hadn't run a screen pass successfully more than a handful of times in the 21st century, this new coaching staff had their team doing even that impossible stunt. Brees stared down a bull rushing DeMarcus Ware but lofted a pass to Reggie Bush in the left flat at the last moment. Bush danced, cut and stumbled his way through the Cowboys for a 61-yard touchdown, escorted every yard of the way by two panting offensive linemen. Up 28-10, the Saints' blowout was on.

Bush showed much improvement on Sunday, displaying the patience and vision that he seemed to be running too fast for at the beginning of the season. With five touchdowns and 256 receiving yards in the last two games, Bush is quickly turning into a dangerous weapon worthy of his $60 million contract, and an open field runner who has a grasp on the speed of the NFL game.

The Cowboys made a game of it on their responding drive with a little luck. Romo hit WR Terry Glenn for 27 yards to put them in business in Saints territory, then got a huge break from CB Fred Thomas. Playing with a damaged thumb and a protective reinforced glove, Thomas read Terrell Owens' pattern and broke on the deep post pattern beautifully, but Romo's ill-conceived pass made its way through both of Thomas' hands and into Owens', who made the adjustment, spun and ran into the end zone to make it 28-17. Thomas couldn't believe it and Jay Bellamy turned around in shock as Owens scored, but it was luck's few turns against New Orleans.

In a joust now, the Saints looked for the kill shot. Started by a good Michael Lewis return to their own 37, Drew Brees found Devery Henderson deep, delivering the ball 50 yards downrange into a gaping hole half the size of the field where only a streaking Henderson could get it. Henderson dove for the pylon after making a great catch but was ruled out at the Dallas one. McAllister was denied once but on second down dove into the end zone. Problem was, the Saints' were guilty on an illegal substitution. Working at a fast past late in the third, Brees set the Saints back up at the six, and went back to his secret weapon. Karney caught the ball in the left flat, and powered through two Dallas defenders on his way to the left pylon. Originally ruled out, Sean Payton challenged and Karney was found to have extended the ball to touch the pylon as he was Reggie Bush-ing his way horizontally with defenders all over him.

Up 35-17, Payton found his killshot on the ensuing kickoff, which Billy Cundiff perfectly kicked onsides and Bellamy recovered. Four plays later, Brees evaded the rush and fired a moonshot to Devery Henderson in double coverage deep in the left corner of the field. Henderson, who is maturing into a fantastic playmaker with Horn and Colston's injuries providing him with playing time, went up and plucked the ball from the outstretched hands of two defensive backs. Rolling untouched, Henderson scrambled his way for the goal line and scored from 42 yards out.

The kill shot had landed... with more than three minutes to go in the third quarter.

Tony Romo did his best in the next drive to respond, and even caught some breaks deep in the red zone. After moving the Cowboys inside the red zone with completions of 18 and 17 yards to Terry Glenn, Romo continued to have trouble against Gary Gibbs' masterfully conceived game plan. On third and five at the Saint 13, the Saints called a timeout. Arriving back on field after the break, Romo, frustrated, called a timeout of his own. Romo passed incomplete on third down, and the Saints declined a high-low chock block penalty. On fourth down and five, Romo rolled left and fired over Glenn's head in the end zone.

But the Saints were offsides, and the Cowboys moved five yards upfield and were left with fourth and inches. Preparing for a quarterback sneak, the Cowboys instead jumped early, and moved right back again. On fourth down anew, Romo was goaded by Jason Craft looking for Terrell Owens in the back of the end zone on the post. Romo fired, and Craft stepped in for the easy interception.

The Saints punted, and Romo got the ball back early in the fourth with nothing but passes in mind. In fact, the Cowboys attempted three rushing attempts in the fourth quarter. Two were kneels by Romo to surrender the final seconds of the game, and a third was a run by backup RB Marion Barber III for no gain.

At this point of the game, Romo appeared to be at the height of his inaccuracy, and a sack by Will Smith and Brian Young snuffed out a drive and forced the Cowboys to punt at midfield. Brees got the ball back with a little over eleven minutes left, and started another one of the Saints' patented game-closing drives.

McAllister rushed the ball eight times, including six straight, Bush carried three times including a 16-yard burst around left end to set up first and goal at the Dallas 4.

At that point, student had mercy on teacher. Drew Brees kneeled the ball four straight times, as the two minute warning passed. Romo kneeled twice to finish the rout.

Charles Grant officially sealed the victory for Sean Payton with a well-placed dump of a team watercooler on Payton's head.

Brees finished with 384 yards passing, 217 to speedsters Bush and Henderson, and broke the Saints' single season passing record with 4033 yards and became the first QB to throw for five touchdowns against the Cowboys franchise at home.

Reggie Bush scored his seventh career touchdown on six carries for 37 yards and six catches for 125 yards. McAllister's 126 all-purpose yards put him over 1000 all-purpose on the season and at 905 on the season, extending his franchise record rushing total to 5430. Devery Henderson had two catches for 92 yards, giving him a gawdy 23.3 yard/catch average, which is more than two yards better than the team record currently held by Keith Poole.

Scott Shanle (six solo tackles) and Scott Fujita (five solo tackles) led the way for the Saints defense, while DE Will Smith made the most of his missed Week 13 game and returned to action with three hurries and two sacks for 18 yards lost.

The Saints remain well ahead in the race for the NFC South title. Carolina is now three games behind at 6-7 after losing to the Giants with Chris Weinke starting, while Atlanta is two games behind at 7-6 after defeating the hapless Bucs (3-10). Atlanta still remains functionally three games behind, with the Saints having swept the Falcons this season.

A victory against the Washington Redskins next week would clinch the Saints' first divisional title since 2000 and the playoff spot that goes with it.

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