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Cowboys vs. Saints: Playoffs on the line

Can Dallas overcome all of their defensive injuries to overcome Drew Brees and a potent New Orleans offense?

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Back in the beginning of November, after two consecutive losses to the New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons, the Cowboys looked out of playoff contention. Jason Garrett's job was in jeopardy, his team was making maddening mistakes and destroying themselves in big games.

But since starting off the season 3-5, the Cowboys have come out hot in the second half of the year with a 5-1 record. If they moved the ball a few yards closer or Dan Bailey makes that field goal in Baltimore, they would be sitting at 9-5. If Dez Bryant gets his hand in bounds, the Cowboys would find themselves at 10-4.

Garrett has earned his right to coach another season in Dallas. He's persevered through the Josh Brent and Jerry Brown saga, all while becoming a better coach. In their last five wins, Garrett has his team mentally and physically prepared. Plays are being executed, and those mistakes that we saw earlier in the season have disappeared.

After a huge win overtime win over the Steelers in overtime, the Cowboys are now in a three-way tie for first place of the NFC East. The Saints, meanwhile, come to Cowboys Stadium after completely destroying the Buccaneers 41-0. Prior to that blowout, the Saints were coming off a three-game losing streak.

Drew Brees is having another terrific season under center in New Orleans, throwing for 36 touchdowns, 4,335 yards and 18 interceptions. But while he is one of the best quarterbacks in the game, he does make mistakes and throws a high number of interceptions. It's actually something that doesn't get talked about a lot: when you throw the ball as much as the Saints do and have a Super Bowl title on your resume, you can get away with some of those mistakes.

If the Cowboys are going to win this game, then they have to make some plays on defense. Stopping the running game will be key. If they stop Mark Ingram from running the football effectively, then Brees cannot open up the deep ball with his play-action fakes. That's going to be difficult, as Dallas is missing five starters on defense.

Rob Ryan will be counting on guys like Danny McCray, Ernie Sims, Brady Poppinga, Sterling Moore, Eric Frampton, Michael Coe and Brian Schaefering to limit the Saints passing attack. He's making due with guys signed off the street at some of the most important position on the field.

The guys they're replacing -- Barry Church, Jay Ratliff, Kenyon Coleman, Sean Lee and Bruce Carter -- gave Ryan strength up the middle of the field. That, in turn, let Ryan run his man-to-man coverage scheme. Since losing Church, Lee and Carter, he has had to drop back into coverage and dial back the blitzing.

Darren Sproles is the X-factor on Sunday. If the Cowboys can't stay with him in coverage, Brees will hit him for big gains all game long. Without Lee or Carter, it's going to be very difficult to limit Sproles from running wild after making the catch.

On the offensive side of the ball, Tony Romo has been a big reason for the recent success. He continues to hook up with wide receiver Dez Bryant and they are beginning to become one of the best quarterback-wide receiver tandems in the NFL. Bryant is playing through a broken left index finger, but that hasn't prevented him from going out there and giving the Cowboys the perfect weapon in the passing game.

Bryant is playing at a Pro Bowl level this season. After a rough start to the season, he has had a breakout campaign, racking up 79 receptions for 1,087 yards and 10 touchdowns. Just as important, Dwayne Harris, Cole Beasley and James Hanna are developing into strong passing options too. Having so many weapons keeps the defense guessing, and the Saints are one of the worst teams in the league against the pass (31st overall). It could be another big game for Romo and company.

The passing game has also benefited from the return of DeMarco Murray. Murray balances out the entire offense and allows Garrett to become more creative as a play caller. At the same time, the offensive line is finally beginning to show some life. It's still a work in progress, but they are starting to gel and become more comfortable working in tandem.

This is going to be a very difficult game for the Cowboys. Romo and the offense can put up the points necessary to beat the Saints, but it really comes down to the defense to make some plays. Their playoff chances will come down to a bunch of guys who were on the street two months ago, but two months ago no one would have given them much of a chance to be in the playoffs regardless.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.