Just when you thought Wade Phillips and the Cowboys were pretty much done, they go out and hand the Saints their first loss of the season. And as much as we've bragged about Drew Brees this season, Tony Romo was the best quarterback on the field in the Cowboys' 24-17 win. Romo was 22-of-34 for 312 yards and a touchdown. And he used his legs to extend important drives. He has been heavily criticized for his record in December, but this was the signature win that a lot of folks have been waiting on. Here are a few quick-hitting observations on the Cowboys' win in the Big Easy:
Having DeMarcus Ware on the field gave the Cowboys a huge lift. Phillips wisely limited him to passing downs and he had a ton of energy. That made a big difference on the final drive. It was Ware who caused the Brees fumble that clinched the win for the Cowboys. And right up until that moment, I thought Brees might have a legitimate shot of leading the Saints back. Here's what Ware told the NFL Network moments after the game: "When I told the team I was playing tonight, everybody's eyes lit up. And as you can see, the scoreboard lit up too." Most people didn't believe Phillips on Monday when he said that Ware could possibly play against the Saints. But the All-Pro outside linebacker made steady progress with the team's medical staff and was finally cleared after going through a series of tests a couple hours before the game.
Miles Austin is obviously the Cowboys' No. 1 wide receiver at this point. He had the big touchdown early in the game, but it was his catch and run on a third-and-long with 6:28 left in the game that held the Saints' comeback at bay. You can tell Romo has so much faith in Austin. Conversely, why would anyone have faith in Roy Williams at this point? His drop on a quick slant in the fourth quarter allowed the Saints to continue their comeback. I'd bench the guy. He really has no business being on the field -- especially with players such as Kevin Ogletree and Patrick Crayton making clutch catches.
Surely the Cowboys will go ahead and cut kicker Nick Folk now. The NFL Network showed footage of him shanking field goals before the game and sure enough he hit the right upright on a short attempt with 2:14 left in the game. I can't imagine him being on the roster when the Cowboys make the trip to Washington next Sunday night. Winning has a way of covering up warts, but Folk can't hide after that miss.
Mike Jenkins is about to become a perennial Pro Bowl player if he keeps this up. The Cowboys' second-year cornerback went toe-to-toe with perhaps the deepest group of receivers in the league. His interception in the second quarter ended a Saints scoring threat and he made plays throughout the game. He's playing with a swagger right now that's pretty impressive. And he's getting good jams at the line of scrimmage. Jenkins told me Wednesday he's a huge fan of Charles Woodson's game. And on Saturday night, he sort of reminded me of Woodson. He's by far the best cornerback the Cowboys have right now and he'll be in the Pro Bowl mix next season.
It's a joke that Jay Ratliff isn't in the top five in the Pro Bowl fan voting. Ratliff can take over a game from his defensive tackle spot. He controlled Saints center Jonathan Goodwin and caused a lot of trouble in the middle. Ratliff didn't really show up on the stat sheet other than his fumble recovery, but he caused a lot of trouble for the Saints.
This had to be outside linebacker Anthony Spencer's best game as a Cowboy. With Ware resting quite a bit on first and second down, Spencer turned up the pressure. For some reason, the Saints kept forgetting to block him and Spencer took advantage. Spencer and Ware combined for four sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. This is what the Cowboys had in mind when they drafted Spencer in the first round.
Let's revisit the Austin note: Austin completely embarrassed Saints first-rounder Malcolm Jenkins on a double move on the touchdown. Jenkins just bit all the way, allowing Austin to get over him for the easy touchdown. Perfect throw by Romo. And then the heralded Darren Sharper had trouble keeping track of Austin. Austin ran through Sharper's arm tackle on one long play in the first half. On that huge play with 6:28 left in the game, tight end Jason Witten did a nice job of clearing things out for Austin.
Tony Romo said on TV after the game that the Cowboys used a Tony Dungy video clip as a source of motivation. Romo revealed special teams coach Joe DeCamillis showed a video of Dungy saying on NBC last Sunday night the Cowboys had "no chance" against the Saints.
The Cowboys' reward: One whole week with no one talking about how awful they've been in December. Impressive win. If they follow it up with a win in Washington, we're looking at a huge showdown between the Cowboys and Eagles to end the regular season.