Cowboys-Saints key matchups

Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo vs. New Orleans Saints FS Darren Sharper: Since a three-pick performance in the second week of the season, Romo has done an outstanding job protecting the ball. He’s thrown only four interceptions in the last 11 games, none in December.

But Sharper and the Saints represent the toughest test for Romo’s new-and-improved ball security. The Saints have forced an NFL-high 37 turnovers, including eight interceptions by Sharper, one of the league’s best bargains with a $1.75 million salary.

Sharper, a 13-year veteran, doesn’t have phenomenal athleticism by NFL standards. He excels because of instinct and savvy.

The Cowboys need Romo to make plays to have a chance to pull off the upset, but he also has to be careful with the ball. He must know where Sharper is, which the Saints can make difficult with adjustments made seconds before the snap.

Saints QB Drew Brees vs. Cowboys FS Ken Hamlin: The Saints attack every defense with their downfield passing game. But they’ll probably be especially eager to test Hamlin, who is expected to start after missing the last four games with a high ankle sprain.

A healthy Hamlin would have trouble keeping up with speedy Saints receivers Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem. It could get ugly if his ankle hinders Hamlin.

New Orleans coach Sean Payton exploited the Cowboys’ safeties in the Saints’ 42-17 win at Texas Stadium in 2006, when Brees threw for 384 yards and five touchdowns. That exposed a flaw that the Cowboys tried to fix by signing Hamlin that offseason.

After a Pro Bowl campaign in 2007, Hamlin was rewarded with a six-year, $39 million extension. Hamlin hasn’t rewarded Jerry Jones’ generosity. He’s made far too few plays and given up way too many. There are some at Valley Ranch that think the Cowboys are better off with backup Alan Ball at free safety.

The target has changed, but Payton’s game plan will probably be pretty similar to the one he had against the Cowboys in 2006.