Jenkins saves day (season?) for Saints

This forced fumble by Malcolm Jenkins, right, gave the Saints new life against Dallas. Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Maybe it was one of the goat horns that suddenly was sprouting out of Malcolm Jenkins' helmet that caused perhaps the biggest play of the season for the New Orleans Saints.

The safety, who made a mistake in coverage, somehow chased down Dallas Cowboys receiver Roy E. Williams and popped the ball loose deep in Saints' territory. Just moments earlier, it seemed the Saints were about to let a shot at a repeat of the NFC South title and the Super Bowl championship fade away.

"It could have been a catastrophe,'' Jenkins said.

That's no exaggeration. Jenkins' play helped the Saints defeat the Cowboys, 30-27, in a bizarre Thanksgiving game at Cowboys Stadium. Jenkins chased Williams knowing he had to make more than a tackle. He needed something close to a miracle.

After all, Jenkins was a big part of the reason why Williams was running free downfield and the Saints were about to blow a game that seemed so winnable early on.

With Dallas leading 27-23, Williams caught a slant pass from Jon Kitna. Jenkins said he took a bad angle in pursuit, and a cornerback had slipped. That left Williams running free down the middle of the field with three minutes remaining. If Williams scored, the Saints would need two possessions to have a chance. Even if he didn't score, the Cowboys might have been able to run out the clock or, at worst, kick a field goal.

"If I just tackled him there, the game is over,'' said Jenkins, a second-year pro who made the transition to safety after playing cornerback as a rookie.

With Williams running free, cornerback Tracy Porter was the only New Orleans player downfield and Williams had a lot of room to beat him. As Williams got near Porter, he tried to wrap the ball up. Jenkins was in pursuit from the blindside.

At the New Orleans 11-yard line, Jenkins caught up to Williams and somehow popped the ball free.

"It kind of fell right into my stomach,'' Jenkins said. "All I can say about that is God is good.''

Divine intervention? Well, that might be extreme, but there's no doubt Jenkins did something extraordinary.

"I think I did everything I could have done,'' Williams said. "It went through my head to just fall down, but that’s not in my repertoire. The guy just made a great play. We had it in our pocket, and I let it go.''

Jenkins fell down with the ball and Drew Brees and the offense came onto the field.

"Whenever you have No. 9 out there, you have a chance,'' Jenkins said.

Brees marched the Saints 89 yards in five plays and one minute and eight seconds. He put New Orleans ahead to stay with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Lance Moore on the first play after the two-minute warning.

Even then, it wasn't over for the Saints, who spent most of the second half of the game looking like they were going to blow a game they'd led by 17 points against a 3-7 team. The Cowboys moved downfield. David Buehler's 59-yard field-goal attempt to tie the game with 31 seconds left had the distance, but was left of the goal post by just a few feet.

"To give up that lead and go home, it would have been a terrible weekend,'' Jenkins said.

An embarrassing loss after the Saints led by as much as 20-3 in the first half might have had implications beyond the weekend. It would have put the Saints two games behind the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC South race and started a downward spiral for a team that's been inconsistent all season.

The Saints squandered the big lead as Reggie Bush, making his return from missing eight games with a broken leg, dropped two easy passes and fumbled away a punt return. Rookie tight end Jimmy Graham had a pass go off his hands and turn into an interception for Brees.

"It's a credit to our team's fight,'' coach Sean Payton said. "That play Malcolm makes late is a heart play. It's an effort play and that inspires a whole team. It was kind of a gut-check win.''

By popping the ball loose and having it fall into his gut, Jenkins helped the Saints get to 8-3. They now have as many wins as the Falcons, who are 8-2 heading into Sunday's showdown with Green Bay at the Georgia Dome.

"The sweet thing about winning is it gives the players an extra three days off to get their feet wet,'' Payton said.

The Saints will get Friday, Saturday and Sunday off before returning to practice next week to get ready to face Cincinnati on the road the following Sunday. They likely would have had to work at least part of the weekend had they lost, and it certainly wouldn't have been pleasant. They would have to have played the rest of the season trying desperately to catch up to the Falcons.

There's a fine line between wins and losses and heroes and goats. Jenkins' play on Williams demonstrates that better than anything.

"Our mentality for the entire fourth quarter (was) to (get the ball back) and give our offense another chance,'' Jenkins said.

His play not only gave Brees and the offense another chance. It gave the Saints a chance to compete for another NFC South title and another Super Bowl title.