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Saints prove they belong among NFL's elite

IRVING, Texas -- This Saints' season has been one of intermittent celebrations. Each week's game is a party for their fans in New Orleans and along the Gulf South, a three-hour respite from the stress of life after Hurricane Katrina. In Week 3, the Saints had their homecoming, dominating the rival Falcons in the Superdome's first event in more than a year. Three weeks later, their home win over then-4-1 Philadelphia was their coming-out party. Reggie Bush had a personal coming-out bash with four touchdowns last week in a win against San Francisco.

And Sunday night was the Saints' graduation party. A 42-17 blowout on national television of the Dallas Cowboys (8-5), winners of four straight and five of their previous six and a popular choice as NFC's best team, makes New Orleans a certified championship contender. Not just a feel-good story but a really good team.

From 3-13 and displaced for an entire season to arguably the class of the conference and maybe a spot in Super Bowl XLI. Yeah, that's premature, but there's bound to be a lot more talk of a February trip to Miami. And it's time for the rest of the nation to start considering the possibility that there could be a few more chapters to the best story of the 2006 season.

"It sends a big message. All week if you watched TV and read the papers everything you heard was Dallas this and Dallas that. You didn't even know who Dallas was playing this week. It just shows that we're contenders, that we're a legitimate team."
Will Smith, Saints defensive end

"We're trying to show that we belong," Saints running back Deuce McAllister said. "Win on the road against a pretty good team, it shows people we're a pretty good team, too."

New Orleans (9-4) didn't just beat Dallas. It was so bad that Drew Brees was taking a knee inside the Dallas 10-yard line before the two-minute warning. The Saints' 536 total yards were the most in regulation against a Bill Parcells defense and the third most ever against a Cowboys defense. Brees became the first opposing quarterback to throw five touchdowns against the Cowboys in Dallas. New Orleans' offense held the ball for more than 37 minutes and added five pass plays of 20 yards or longer to its league-leading total of 55 of more than 20 yards.

These Cowboys were the darlings of the conference if not the league. They had the overnight celebrity quarterback, Tony Romo, who couldn't lose. Their head coach, Bill Parcells, could do no wrong. They had a defense that couldn't be beaten. Oh, and a wide receiver who can't shut up.

Well, Romo completed less than 50 percent of his passes, threw two interceptions and could have been picked off three more times. Parcells was outcoached by former pupil Sean Payton, whose knowledge of the Cowboys' defensive personnel gave the Saints an edge that they easily and repeatedly exploited. New Orleans scored touchdowns on six of seven possessions (not including right before the end of the first half) over the second and third quarters against the league's seventh-ranked defense through 13 weeks. And by the end of the evening, the home fans were booing Terrell Owens following one of his now-routine drops.

Some of the Saints took exception to being the "other" team in the game of the week. Now they're the No. 2 seed in the conference, with a two-game lead in the NFC South with three to play and an 8-1 conference record. (They also did the rest of NFC East a favor, reducing the Cowboys' lead to a game.) In the franchise's five previous postseason appearances, the Saints never have enjoyed a first-round bye, which goes to the conferences' top two seeds. We already knew they are tough to beat in the Superdome. Sunday night's performance showed the nation that the Saints are tough to handle anywhere.

"It sends a big message," said underrated Saints defensive end Will Smith, who had two sacks, bringing his season total to 10½. "All week if you watched TV and read the papers, everything you heard was Dallas this and Dallas that. You didn't even know who Dallas was playing this week. It just shows that we're contenders, that we're a legitimate team."

Payton knew all too well whom his team was playing.

The rookie coach tried to downplay his role in the Black and Gold exploitation film, costarring the Cowboys' defense, that his top-rated offense produced. But it was undeniable. The Saints knew they could beat Dallas' defense with swing passes over hard-rushing end DeMarcus Ware, which they did on Bush's 61-yard touchdown in the third quarter that made the score 28-10. Bush followed up last week's 131 receiving yards with a game-high 125 on six receptions.

The Saints targeted the Dallas safeties, who are suspect in coverage, and knew the Cowboys relied heavily on their linebackers to reroute receivers. With 44 seconds left in the second quarter, New Orleans got Jamal Jones, their fifth receiver, matched up on linebacker Bradie James and safety Roy Williams. Brees hit Jones for a 27-yard touchdown that made the score 21-10. Brees also connected with Devery Henderson for a 50-yard pass play and a 42-yard touchdown, both times behind cornerback Anthony Henry and before Williams (on the 50-yarder) and Keith Davis (on the TD) could get over to help.

And New Orleans knew that it could "outflank" Dallas' defense and get fullback Mike Karney open in the flat. Karney came into the game with 39 career touches and no touchdowns. Against Dallas, he caught five passes, carried it three times and scored his first three career touchdowns – two on receptions of 3 and 6 yards and the other a 2-yard run for the Saints' first touchdown. The hat trick was Karney's first since he scored 22 touchdowns his senior year in high school. He scored one in four years at Arizona State.

"I couldn't believe it," said Karney, whose key block on James cleared room for McAllister's 35-yard gallop in the fourth quarter that put him over 100 yards. "It felt like Friday practice. I catch three or four touchdowns on Friday in short yardage and goal line. We knew we could get out in the flat on them, but after the first one I thought it would be dead."

Brees finished 26-of-38 for 384 yards, giving him a league-leading 4,033 for the season. It's going to be difficult for him to beat former San Diego teammate LaDainian Tomlinson in the voting for league most valuable player, but if there were a Unitas Golden Arm award in the pros, Brees would be the runaway winner. Home or away in the playoffs, the Saints are going to be difficult to beat because their offense is so tough to defend because it uses so many weapons. The Saints pound defenses and keep them honest with McAllister. Bush in space is the threat teams fear most. New Orleans got rookie Marques Colston back Sunday night from a three-game absence (high ankle sprain), but he only played the first half. Henderson can fly. Joe Horn didn't even play with a groin injury. Terrance Copper makes plays. Jones and Karney got into the act.

We haven't even talked about the Saints' defense, which continues to overachieve. The Saints' defense settled down after Julius Jones' 77-yard touchdown run on the Cowboys' second play and didn't allow Romo and the Dallas offense to get into rhythm.

Payton, whose special teams pulled off an onside kick with the Saints up 35-17 (it led to their last score), got a Parcells-patented Gatorade shower from his players on the sideline as time ran out. The way his team has played the past three weeks after dropping two straight and three of four, there might be a couple more Gatorade baths for Payton in the very near future.

"It's huge [the win], and we feel good about it," Brees said. "It let us know a lot about ourselves. It lets a lot of people know about the Saints and what we're all about."

"I think it lets people know that we're around now," Karney said. "This game was a statement. It's big. It's very big."

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.