8:20 PM EST, FOX – Line: Cowboys -5, Over/Under: 47.5
Week Thirteen kicks off with a pair of teams looking to bounce back after having their Thanksgiving spoiled, with the Dallas Cowboys traveling to the Big Easy to battle the New Orleans Saints in a primetime matchup from Caesars Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. As we move into the month of December, the Cowboys (7-4, 1st in NFC East) suddenly find themselves in a precarious position after losing three of their last four games; while they maintain a firm grip on the division, they’re starting to fall behind the elite in the NFC, sliding to fourth in the conference, which is significant in the race for home field advantage. So what has gone wrong in Dallas, you ask? Well, since (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Dak Prescott (69.4%, 2,932 YDS, 7.21 NY/A, 22 TD, 7 INT, 50.8 QBR) returned from a calf injury suffered in the latter stages of a 35-29 victory over the New England Patriots, he and his teammates have dropped three out of four, with all three defeats coming at the hands of AFC West competition. First, it was a head-scratching 30-16 loss at home to the middling Denver Broncos on November 7th, in which the league’s top-ranked offense (430.7 Y/G) was held scoreless until just over four minutes were left in the fourth quarter en route to holding the football for a season-low 18:48. Two weeks later they traveled to Arrowhead for a showdown with the two-time AFC Champions, Kansas City Chiefs, and once again struggled to get things going offensively, mustering season-lows in both points (9) and total yards (276), while committing a season-high three turnovers in a 19-9 loss. And then there was last Thursday’s 36-33 defeat at home to the Las Vegas Raiders, who came into that Thanksgiving affair in dire straits losing three consecutive contests. While this one certainly featured it’s share of fireworks with the two sides combining for sixty-nine points, 946 total yards, and fifty-one first downs, this was a game that was mired by a deluge of penalties, including fourteen from each team equating to a whopping 276 yards lost, the most seen in a single game since 2016. Needless to say, (Head Coach) Mike McCarthy was NOT happy with the performance, as his defense was gashed for 509 total yards while also being responsible for 116 of the team’s overall 166 penalty yards, becoming just the third defense in the last FORTY years to allow 500-plus yards and commit 100-plus yards in penalties. (Veteran Cornerback) Anthony Brown (50 TKL, 3 INT, 11 PD, 1 TD) was the biggest offender, drawing FOUR pass interference flags, including an absolutely crushing gaffe in overtime to set up the Raiders’ game-winning 29-yard field goal. It was definitely a step backwards for a unit that had shown serious improvement under (Defensive Coordinator) Dan Quinn, ranking fifteenth overall in points allowed (22.7) and sixth in takeaways (19), while rebounding from a franchise-worst campaign against the run to allow a much more respectable 107.3 yards per game (12th Overall). Last week’s performance aside, it has been their youth that has served the Cowboys well, particularly in the form of (Sophomore Cornerback) Trevon Diggs (37 TKL, 8 INT, 13 PD, 2 TD) and (Rookie Linebacker) Micah Parsons (67 TKL, 15 TFL, 23 QBH, 9.0 SK, 2 FF). After a rough rookie campaign, Diggs has FLOURISHED under Quinn’s watch, leading the league with EIGHT interceptions and two touchdown returns, while Parsons has established himself as the frontrunner for Defensive Rookie of the Year, pacing the unit in solo tackles (52), tackles for loss (15), Quarterback hits (23), and sacks (9). In regards to the latter, the 22-year-old was drafted on his work as an off-ball Linebacker, but has shown how versatile he can be in playing nearly half of his snaps at Defensive End, where his pass-rushing skills has been nothing short of a welcomed surprise for a defensive front that has some suffered key injuries. And speaking of injuries, McCarthy (who won’t be coaching tonight after testing positive for COVID-19 earlier in the week) hopes to return to full strength for tonight’s trip to New Orleans, with the offensive side of the football having been without a number of significant personnel over the past few weeks. Dallas got (seven-time Pro-Bowl Left Tackle) Tyron Smith back last week, and hopes to get their top two pass-catchers, (Receivers) Amari Cooper (44 REC, 583 YDS, 13.3 Y/R, 5 TD) and CeeDee Lamb (50 REC, 740 YDS, 14.8 Y/R, 6 TD) back in action. Make no mistake, the absence of Cooper (COVID/Reserve List) and Lamb (Concussion) has been a major factor in their offensive struggles during this stretch, with the two Wideouts accounting for ninety-four receptions, 1,323 yards, and half of Prescott’s twenty-two passing touchdowns (11). With that said, what this team could really use is a return to balance, with the rushing attack falling by the wayside over the course of this slide. Prior to their bye week, the Cowboys were churning out a robust 164.3 yards on 5.1 yards per carry, but since then have only managed a pedestrian 83.2 yards on 3.7 yards per attempt, with the number of attempts falling from 32.3 to 22.6. In last week’s affair with Las Vegas, they rushed for just sixty-four yards on twenty carries, marking their least-productive showing on the ground since totaling sixty yards in the season opener at Tampa Bay. Sure, with the talent that they possess in the passing game it is easy to drop back and have Prescott throw the football forty-five times a game, but this has ben a team that has long-been built off the strength of their ground game, with their Offensive Line routinely dominating the opposition within the trenches. This will make for an interesting matchup with the Saints, who are one of the few teams in the NFL that have the size, strength, and athleticism along the defensive front to trade blows with Smith & Co. History hasn’t been kind to Dallas when they travel to the Superdome, a place they haven’t tasted victory since 2009, losing in each of their last three trips including last encounter in 2019; that one was a certified defensive struggle, with the Cowboys mustering a scant forty-five rushing yards en route to a a narrow 12-10 defeat. Furthermore, Prescott is 1-1 in two meetings with New Orleans, completing 75.1% of his passes for 472 yards, a touchdown and an interception, while suffering eight sacks and a lost fumble. Over the last decade, Dallas is 8-9 (.470) on Thursdays, though has lost five straight games on this particular day of the week, including each of the previous two this season.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys aren’t the only team looking to cleanse themselves of a disappointing holiday performance, for the Saints (5-6, 2nd in NFC South) were absolutely WAXED in last Thursday night’s brutal 31-6 loss at home to the Buffalo Bills. Once 5-2 and gunning for a potential fifth consecutive division title, New Orleans has found themselves in the midst of a four-game losing streak with no end in sight considering the laundry list of injuries that they’ve been afflicted with over the last month. Coming into this season all the talk in the Big Easy was about how this team would replace (longtime Quarterback) Drew Brees, who finally called it a career after fifteen successful years with the franchise, highlighted by hoisting the club’s first Lombardi trophy back in 2009. After routinely finishing among the league’s elite in a slew of offensive categories, it was a legitimate question as to how the Saints would transition into this post-Brees era, though (Head Coach) Sean Payton had a clear succession plan in place, with the starting gig eventually being passed to Jameis Winston (59.0%, 1,170 YDS, 6.40 NY/A, 14 TD, 3 INT, 64.3 QBR), who spent all of last season backing up Brees. While they weren’t as prolific as they were under the future Hall of Famer, New Orleans had settled into a consistent identity with Winston at the controls, grinding out a 4-2 record to start the season. However, tragedy struck as the former No. One Overall Pick suffered a torn ACL during a 36-27 victory over the (reigning Super Bowl Champion) Tampa Bay Buccaneers back on October 31st, ending his 2021 campaign altogether. And though (third-stringer) Trevor Siemian (57.2%, 1,083 YDS, 5.65 NY/A, 9 TD, 3 INT, 32.9 QBR) would come off the bench to engineer that triumph, the oft-traveled veteran has yet to replicate that success, completing 57.6% of his attempts for 231.0 yards per game on 6.1 net yards per attempt, with eight touchdowns in comparison to three interceptions en route to losing each of his four starts. While those numbers are far from dreadful, the offense simply hasn’t been able to win games like they have in the past, evidenced by a pair of narrow losses to the Atlanta Falcons (27-25) and Tennessee Titans (23-21), which came by a combined FOUR points. Eventually the bottom would fall out completely for the Saints, who after succumbing to a 29-40 loss at the Philadelphia Eagles turned right around and were obliterated by the Bills, as Siemian & Co could do nothing to threaten Buffalo. Without a point through the first three quarters of play, the hosts could manage just sixty-three yards over the course of their first seven possessions, punting four times and turning it over on downs on two occasions. Apart from a 10-play, 75-yard drive culminating in an 11-yard touchdown toss from Siemian to (seldom-used Tight End) Nick Vannett (2 REC, 31 YDS, 15.5 Y/R, 1 TD), this was about as lifeless a performance that the good folks in New Orleans have seen in quite a while. In the end, Payton’s charges compiled just twelve first downs and 190 total yards, including a meager forty-four rushing yards on twenty-five carries, while Siemian went 17-of-29 for 163 yards with that aforementioned touchdown and an interception, while suffering a pair of sacks to boot. With that said, it’s not the 30-year-old’s fault that this unit has struggled so, for you would be the talent drain that the Saints have experienced in this regard has been considerable. We’ve already touched upon the void left by Winston, but this group has been without (former All-Pro Receiver) Michael Thomas all season, while (four-time Pro-Bowl Tailback) Alvin Kamara (178 TCH, 840 YDS, 4.7 Y/T, 7 TD) has missed each of the last three contests with a knee injury. Thomas, who was relegated to just seven games last year due to a lingering high ankle sprain, has yet to see the gridiron in 2021 rehabbing from offseason surgery, robbing Payton of one of the most prolific weapons in the league; when he was last healthy, the 28-year-old set an NFL record with 149 receptions for a league-leading 1,725 yards. And then there is Kamara, who since his arrival has been the game’s arguably the deadliest pass-catching threat out of the backfield; the 26-year-old hauled in at least eighty catches in each of his first four seasons, and without Thomas in pads had assumed an even greater responsibility in the passing game. (Versatile Quarterback) Taysom Hill (20 CAR, 104 YDS, 5.2 Y/A, 3 TD) has also been sidelined in recent weeks, robbing the offense of a veritable wild card that Payton has utilized to great effect over the past few years; not your conventional Quarterback, Hill is a bonafide threat in short yardage situations and within the red zone, with his physical running style and timely passing giving opponents one more thing to think about. To give you an idea of the faith the that the coaching staff has in him, New Orleans awarded Hill with a four-year, $40 million incentive-laden contract extension that can reach up to $90 million if certain benchmarks are met. While it appears that the 31-year-old is expected to return to the starting lineup tonight, the Offensive Line continues to be shorthanded, with (Tackles) Terron Armstead ad Ryan Ramczyk each dealing with ailing knees. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how an offense that ranked in the top-ten in both points and total yards in each of the last ten years falls to seventeenth in scoring (23.4) and twenty-seventh in total offense (321.1), for no matter how good Payton is as a playcaller, this dearth of talent has left the Saints effectively punching with one hand tied behind their back. Ironically, this steep decline on offense has occurred alongside the rise of the defense, which has done everything it can to keep them in games of late. (Defensive Coordinator) Dennis Allen deserves a lot of credit for turning around what had been one of the most hapless units in the league, ranking thirteen in points allowed (22.6) and eleventh in total defense (343.7), along with ninth in takeaways (16) and second in the red zone (47.1%). Takeaways have been barometer for this group, who are 3-1 in games in which they’ve forced multiple turnovers, with last week’s loss against the Bills proving to be the exception to the rule. Though Buffalo would amass thirty-one points and possess the football for a commanding 34:38, the hosts would make them earn everything, intercepting (Bills Quarterback) Josh Allen on back-to-back drives to close out the first half, keeping the contests close at intermission (10-0). (Six-time Pro-Bowler) Cameron Jordan (37 TKL, 6 TFL, 13 QBH, 4.0 SK, 1 FF) remains a force in the trenches, while (three-time Pro-Bowl Cornerback) Marshon Lattimore (42 TKL, 1 INT, 11 PD) has proven to be worth every cent of that franchise invested him. The latter has been a huge component of a physical Secondary that thrives on man coverage, challenging opposing Receivers downfield; New Orleans has yielded 251.8 passing yards thus far (20th Overall), with thirteen interceptions (7th Overall) opposed to permitting seventeen touchdowns (14th Overall). Any hope of snapping this losing streak and staying alive in the Wild Card hunt will require a sizable performance from this defense, which has managed to neutralize Dallas’ weapons in the past; in their last two meetings, the Saints have held the Cowboys to ten and thirteen points, allowing just 72.0 rushing yards. Over the last decade, Thursday nights haven’t been very kind to them, with Payton’s charges going 4-6 (.400) over that span, losing four of their last six affairs.