A fireworks display in Cowboys Stadium wasn't triggered by a pyrotechnics crew but rather by two quarterbacks who became the first opponents to go over 400 yards passing this NFL season. Saints QB Drew Brees would put the Saints up 31-17 with three touchdown passes, building the lead with a 24-3 run; but Cowboys QB Tony Romo would rally the home team with two touchdowns in the final 3:35 to force overtime.
The Saints kicked a chipshot field goal to win in overtime following a crazy play - a fumble by Marques Colston recovered 31 yards later at the Cowboy 2 on a game-saving heads-up play by TE Jimmy Graham.
A superb performance by the Saints offense would be lessened by basic problems with execution, including a missed field goal, drops and silly penalties. The offense's big lead would be unraveled by a defense that gave up 224 yards to WR Dez Bryant on the day and allowed the Cowboys offense 144 yards in the final 4:45 of regulation.
The Saints at 7-8 are eliminated from the playoffs and face division rival Carolina (6-9) in a meaningless regular season finale next week.
The Saints dominated the first quarter with 12:03 in time of possession out of the first fifteen minutes, and got on the board with an 11-play, 80-yard drive that took 4:40 off the clock. After the first snap of the game was a near-disastrous throwaway under duress by Brees, the Saints moved quickly with a 15-yard strike to Colston on 3rd and 7, a 12-yard pass to Sproles for a first down, a 13-yard screen to Pierre Thomas on 3rd and 3, and a 12-yard strike to Colston at the sideline to move the Saints to the Dallas 18. A facemask penalty called against DE Anthony Spencer, the first of two key mistakes for him in the first half, moved the Saints to the Dallas 9. Then recently-hot RB Mark Ingram burst up the middle, hurdled the legs of an offensive lineman at the line of scrimmage and blasted through two tacklers to score from nine yards out.
A seven play drive by the Cowboys was snuffed out on 3rd and 3 when Saints reserve DT Tom Johnson sacked QB Tony Romo for an eight yard loss. The Cowboys punted near midfield, where Darren Sproles made a fair catch at the Saint 9. The Saints then embarked on a fantastic 15-play drive that ate the remaining 7:28 of the first quarter and into the second quarter. But the drive stalled on 3rd and 1 from the Dallas 18 when Ingram was stuffed for no gain. The Saints had converted their first four third down attempts of the game at that point, including a 3rd and 14 catch and run by Sproles to keep the drive alive to the Saint 31.
The Saints overcame dropped balls by Devery Henderson and Marques Colston on the drive, and false starts by LT Jermon Bushrod and TE Jimmy Graham too. That lack of execution continued to the last play, when Garrett Hartley's field goal attempt from 36 yards out hooked left, giving the Saints no points following a the 73-yard, 8+ minute drive. Poor execution in good spots hurt the Saints and opened the door for the Cowboys.
That miss by Hartley started a bad string of events for the Saints in the second quarter. Three plays into the Cowboys' next drive, Romo launched a deep pass for WR Dez Bryant out of play action in one-on-one coverage with Patrick Robinson. Robinson was behind and out of position to even try to outjump Bryant at the Saint 20, then Robinson ran left from a right-breaking Bryant, who strolled into the end zone. Tying the score at 7-7, the Saints started their next drive at their own 14 and punted from their own 23 after a 3rd-and-29 reception by Sproles gave Morstead breathing room.
Thomas Morstead unleashed a 63-yard rocket with 9:20 left in the half that shifted field position from the Saint 23 to the Dallas 25, one of the reasons "The Leg" is certainly deserving of an All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection.
Six plays into the next drive, Romo fired on a crossing pattern to Dez Bryant again, who stepped out of an ankle tackle by Robinson and turned upfield down the left sideline. Holding the ball in his left hand life a loaf of bread, Bryant stiff-armed S Isa Abdul-Quddus and outran S Roman Harper for another 58-yard score.
Having owned the clock and momentum up until the 14:19 point of the second quarter, the Saints were down 14-7 at the 5:54 mark of the second quarter on the back of two plays of bad coverage by Patrick Robinson on Dez Bryant.
The Saints picked up a holding penalty on the kickoff from TE Michael Higgins, started from their own 10 but got moving quickly. Brees hit Colston for 21 yards, then a toss left for Sproles picked up 11. Brees hit Ingram for 7, Colston for 4, Thomas for 7 on the screen and Colston for 8 to bring the Saints to the Dallas 32 at the two minute warning. Sticking to the run game, Brees handed to Ingram, who smartly dashed out of bounds after a nine yard gain. Two plays later on 3rd and 1, Brees fired for TE Jimmy Graham, but it was beautifully broken up by backup LB Brady Poppinga, who entered the game when starting linebackers Ernie Sims and Alex Albright.
Facing 4th and 1 with 1:40 left in the half, Garrett Hartley lined up for a 40-yard field goal attempt, and was seconds away from kicking it when Joe Vitt called his first timeout and sent Drew Brees back on the field.
Brees fired to Marques Colston inside the Dallas 10 for the fourth down conversion and a 15-yard gain, and Dallas pass rusher Anthony Spencer was flagged for jumping offsides. Inside the two minute warning, the booth initiated a replay review on Colston's catch, ruling it incomplete because Colston controlled it when his knee was down, his wrist was down, but Colston's elbow knocked it loose. Receivers must control the ball all the way through hitting the ground, so Brees' fourth down pass was incomplete. But Spencer's early jump bailed the Saints out, granting a first down at the Dallas 18.
Brees triggered a beautiful outlet pass to Pierre Thomas down to the Dallas 2. Ingram lost four yards on the next carry, but Brees hit Lance Moore in the sprint flat pattern to the right. Moore avoided an ankle tackle and lept into the end zone for the game-tying score with 1:11 left in the half.
Looking to execute a two-minute warning, Romo fired to Witten for 7, but then incomplete twice, forcing a quick, disappointing punt from the home team. Brees took over at his own 30 and promptly hit Darren Sproles on his favorite angle pattern out of backfield. Brees hit Sproles arcing over the middle in stride and he ran away from CB Sterling Moore, avoided a tackle by S Gerald Sensabaugh and was finally tackled 44 yards later. That same pattern has worked for touchdowns on many occasions for Sproles. Sproles' big catch and run put the Saints in field goal position. After two short completions, Brees fired an incompletion on 3rd and 3, Hartley connected on a 37-yard field goal as time expired, giving the Saints a 17-14 halftime lead.
That 10-point rally in the final 1:16 of the first half would help the Saints overcome a mad Dallas rally at the end of regulation.
Dallas muffed the second half kickoff but recovered at their own 24, and Romo would move the Cowboys to the Saint 29 before a 3rd and 10 incompletion to Dez Bryant killed the drive and forced a 47-yard Dan Bailey field goal to tie the game at 17.
Brees converted a 3rd and 5 with a 16-yard strike to Graham on the next drive, but had a 3rd and 8 pass tipped dangerously and nearly intercepted three plays later. The Saints punted to pin the Cowboys at their 16, and the Romo fired incomplete on 3rd down, forcing a Brian Moorman punt. The Saints moved to their own 43, picking up a first down on a Brady Poppinga pass interference call but punting after Graham dropped a first down catch on second down and Sproles couldn't bring in a pass in the flat on 3rd and 5. Morstead boomed a 54-yard punt that was downed by Rafael Bush at the Dallas 3. With Morstead, the Saints were winning the battle of field position, and it was about to pay off.
On the next play, RB Demarco Murray would get stuffed up the middle, and LB Curtis Lofton would strip the ball from Murray in the pile, then fall on it at the Dallas 5. With a golden opportunity, the Saints' red zone offense couldn't afford anything less than a touchdown off Murray's mistake.
Two incompletions to Moore and Sproles set up third and goal. With a bunch formation to Brees' left forcing an overload coverage from the Dallas defense, Brees in shotgun waited for Pierre Thomas to flash to the right uncovered out of the backfield, hitting him uncontested in the end zone for the score. Up 24-17 with 4:08 left in the third quarter, the Saints were on a 17-3 scoring run.
Romo fired incomplete on 3rd and 6 from his own 35 on the next drive, forcing a punt that Sproles should have fair caught outside the Saint 10. Instead, a great Cowboys bounce saw it downed inside the Saint 2 yard line, where Brees took over with 1:03 left in the third quarter.
Pierre Thomas continued to have a big second half, bursting open for a six yard gain on 3rd and 2 from the Saint ten yard line. Two plays later, Thomas looked to be injured when he leg was caught above him in the air and bent awkwardly between two players on a five yard run. Thankfully, the Saints' most reliable runningback would return to the game minutes later.
On 3rd and 7 with 13:14 left in the game, Brees hit Jimmy Graham over the middle for 16, and facing 3rd and 8 three plays later, hit Marques Colston for his longest gain of the season so far. Colston caught a deep post, stepped out of a tackle by DB Charlie Peprah and raced with Devery Henderson escorting 60 yards down the right sideline, finally shoved out of bounds by Sterling Moore at the Dallas 3 yard line. Colston, usually an incredible red zone and mid-range weapon, had his biggest gain since November 30, 2009.
On the next play, Brees hit a wide open TE David Thomas running into the end zone, the Dallas defense fooled by play action in a run-heavy set and Thomas, who lined up in the fullback spot usually occupied by Jed Collins (injured and inactive today). Up 31-17 with 11:14 left in the game, the Saints were on a 24-3 scoring run since the second quarter.
Romo came out firing but was haunted by drops, two embarrassing ones from WR Miles Austin and another by Murray. A 26-yarder to Dez Bryant on 3rd and 10 kept the drive alive, but three plays later Romo was sacked on 3rd and 10 by Junior Galette. The six-play drive ended with a touchback punt, and the Saints took over with 9:39 left and a 14-point lead.
Three straight runs picked up 21 yards before Brees hit Sproles for 10 up to the Dallas 49. Brees faced 3rd and 13 after two short runs and a false start on Graham, and fired too short and underneath for Graham. Morstead punted with 4:59 left on the clock, and the Saints couldn't handle it inside the one yard line, resulting in a touchback.
Dallas QB Tony Romo went to work, completing four of five passes running the no-huddle two-minute drill out of shotgun formation. Romo worked Patrick Robinson with completions of 8 and 41 to Dez Bryant, then went to work on Jabari Greer's replacement Johnny Patrick, hitting Murray for 15, then firing to the end zone twice for Dwayne Harris, who beat Patrick at the front corner of the end zone on an outside-shoulder pass that Patrick didn't see. Romo had rallied the Cowboys to within seven, but the Saints had 3:32 left on the clock to burn. Could the Saints close the game out?
The Saints tried to set up the run to burn clock, picked up one first down with a short pass to Graham, but soon faced 3rd and 10. Retreating far back, Brees threw a great pass considering - he was under heavy duress and threw falling backwards to Colston, who was running parallel and away from coverage. Colston caught the desperation pass but was a yard short of the first down.
With 4th and 1 from the Saint 35, Brees and the offense came onto the field to try and draw the Cowboys offsides and virtually end the game. The Cowboys didn't flinch, so Brees called timeout.
It wouldn't have been surprising to see the Saints attempt to all but clinch the game by going for it on 4th and a long one - the defense had struggled mightily on the day. The tough decision to punt would burn the Saints.
Morstead came on the field to boom a beautiful spiral 57 yards to the Dallas 8. But Dwayne Harris avoided the first wave of Saints coverage and returned the punt to the Dallas 36, a poor showing by the Saints' coverage teams that gave the Cowboys a much shorter field to try and tie the game.
Romo from the shotgun stayed hot and hit Murray for 22, Bryant for 4 and Witten for 19, and the Cowboys were at the Saint 19 to spike the ball and stop the clock with :55 left in regulation.
Dallas faced 4th and 10 after Romo incompletions to Harris and Witten from the Saint 19. With the game on the line and time in the pocket, Romo fired into the end zone for Miles Austin, who stopped, knelt and made the catch deep in the end zone at the right sideline. Reserve CB Johnny Patrick in one-on-one coverage ran right past Austin and was standing still as Austin atoned for earlier drops to make the catch, the second straight touchdown pass against a helpless Patrick. The 2011 third round pick from Louisville has made very little of significant playing time in two seasons, and has a film reel full of poor play. Just as the Saints had grabbed a halftime lead with a 10 point rally at the end of the first half, Dallas forced overtime with a 14-point rally at the end of the second half.
Scoring with just seconds left on the clock, Dallas tied the game and forced Brees to kneel away the final 15 seconds of regulation. The Saints players may not have known, but a Minnesota victory over Houston had shut the door on their infinitesimal playoff chances. Playing for a chance at a .500 season, the Saints entered overtime having given up 400 yards passing to Romo in regulation and surrendering a 14-point lead in less than five minutes.
Dallas won the coin toss and elected to receive, but moved no further than their own 36, when Romo fired low for Dez Bryant, and a hard-charging Patrick Robinson was there to break up the pass. Moorman punted to Sproles, and Brees took over needing only a field goal to win at his own 26.
A 26-yard strike to Jimmy Graham got the drive started, then Pierre Thomas plunged into a moving pile which finally fell seven yards later. Brees fired across the middle for Graham, who dropped another first down pass, but gave him another chance, going right back to Graham over the middle for a seven yard gain on 3rd and 3.
Graham appeared to injure his right hand on that catch, but missed only one play, returning to the game just in time to make the play of the game.
Brees fired a slant to Colston, who caught the pass and took two steps at the Dallas 24, where former LSU star CB Morris Claiborne slapped the ball out of Colston's grip. Colston's left knee punched the ball forward down the field, where Graham found himself in a dead sprint with S Eric Frampton for the loose ball. The ball scooted forward inside the Cowboy 5, where Graham rolled over the ball then recovered it against his left hip. Graham recovered the ball under a pile of Cowboys.
Replay review ruled that Colston had made the catch, and with Graham's recovery, the Saints had a first down at the Cowboy 2.
Not taking any chances, the Saints put Hartley on the field on first down for the extra-point distance field goal. Hartley punched it through easily, and the Saints won 34-31.
Dallas TE Jason Witten set a new league record for catches by a tight end with his 103rd catch on the season, finishing the day with 6 catches for 60 yards. Romo finished with 416 yards passing, 224 of them to WR Dez Bryant, who had gains of 58, 58, 41 and 26 among his nine catches on the day. The Saints held Demarco Murray to 40 yards on 11 carries and 51 yards on four catches, and outrushed the Cowboys 117-40.
RB Mark Ingram got the lion's share of carries, picking up 53 yards on 21 carries, while Sproles added nine carries for 48 and Thomas seven carries for 16 yards. The three runningbacks combined for 289 yards from scrimmage, while the fourth runningback Travares Cadet didn't see much time on offense and nearly fumbled his only kickoff return attempt, he was ruled down before he lost control of the ball.
Despite 37 rushing attempts, Brees also fired 53 passes, hitting 37 completions for 446 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions and no sacks. He eclipsed 4000 completions on the day, one of now five NFL QB's ever to accomplish that feat.
Colston's 60 yarder late in the game pushed him to 153 yards receiving on the day and 1102 yards on the season. His fumble may have been the biggest play of the day, fortuitously recovered by Graham for what ended up as a 31 yard gain. Colston as targeted 13 times on the day, more than any other receiver for the Saints - two other Saints wide receivers Lance Moore and Devery Henderson had one four catches on six targets, while deep threat Joe Morgan wasn't thrown to. Morgan's ridiculous 8 catch, 344 yard season with a 43.0 yard/catch average is safe so far.
Moore's four catches gave him 60 on the season, putting the Saints in rare territory - they are only the second team to have four players collected 60 receptions in a season. The Houston Oilers set that mark first in 1990.
The Saints absolutely dominated time of possession on the day with 41:59, thanks to four drives of 10 plays or more, and five drives that lasted longer than 4:32. The Saints gained at least one first down on every drive on the day.
Colston could break the team career record for receptions next week with 10 receptions. He currently stands tied with WR Joe Horn at 523 and is nine behind WR Eric Martin. Colston has now gone over 1000 yards receiving in all but one career season.
Elsewhere in the league, Redskins K Kai Forbath hit his 17th straight field goal in 17 career attempts, breaking Garrett Hartley's record for 16th straight field goals made to start a career.
Notes: Recently-promoted WR Saalim Hakim was inactive for his first game... RT Zach Strief was back in the starting lineup with OL Eric Olsen used as the utility sixth lineman... CB Jabari Greer suffered a concussion in the third quarter...