NEW ORLEANS — Except for the digital clock cranking out the growth of the national debt, numbers rarely flip as often as they did Sunday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Saints under Sean Payton have been the Greatest Show on Turf since 2006, but in a 49-17 rout of the Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans sent 21st-century computers into meltdown.
The numbers, stark and illustrative, told the entire story.
The Saints (7-2) set an NFL record with 40 first downs. Former Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, unceremoniously fired by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones during the offseason and snapped up by the Saints to serve in the same capacity, led a unit that held his former team to nine first downs — one more than the number of Dallas punts.
New Orleans piled up a franchise-record 625 yards in total offense and held the Cowboys to 193. While the Saints converted nine of 12 third-down opportunities, the Cowboys (5-5) failed to convert on all nine of their third-down attempts. The Saints ran 80 offensive plays to the Cowboys’ 43, and New Orleans held the ball for 39:32.
Quarterback Drew Brees at one point completed 19 consecutive passes against
an injury-riddle Dallas defense — matching his personal best — and he finished 34 of 41 for 392 yards and four touchdowns. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, meanwhile, completed 10 of 24 for just 128 yards and was sacked three times.
Even Mark Ingram, the former first-round draft pick whom Saints fans love to hate, emerged from oblivion. After coming into the game with just 50 yards on 21 carries and serving as a scapegoat for the Saints’ anemic rushing attack, Ingram exploded for 145 yards on 14 attempts — the first 100-yard rushing game of his underwhelming career.
“You don’t get to play a game like this very often,” Payton said. “The team we played was banged up. We did a good job staying ahead of the chains. It was a good win for us.”
Over in the quiet Dallas locker room, Jones said, “I didn’t expect this. I didn’t see it coming. I did think we were going to have to come in here and get some points on the board with them. We were compromised with some of our defensive personnel, but that’s not an excuse. We still didn’t play as well as they played.”
Brees threw touchdown passes of 22 yards to wide receiver Marques Colston, 2 yards to running back Pierre Thomas, 28 yards to running back Darren Sproles and 52 yards to rookie wide receiver Kenny Stills. He completed passes to nine receivers, and Colston, Sproles and Thomas combined for 21 receptions for 207 yards and three scores.
Romo, meanwhile, didn’t complete his first pass to a wide receiver until early in the third quarter, and wide receiver Dez Bryant had only two passes thrown his way. He caught one for 44 yards — the Cowboys’ longest play of the game — but the game was long over by then.
“Losing in this league is hard for everybody,” Dallas coach Jason Garrett said. “On offense, when we’ve been good on third down, it’s typically because we got ourselves in favorable third-down situations. I believe you have to make third downs on first down.”
While maintaining the Saints’ one-game edge on the Carolina Panthers in the NFC South, Brees engineered six touchdown drives of at least 75 yards.
Brees applaud Ingram’s effort. The third-year running back was roundly booed when he dropped a wide-open pass over the middle in the first quarter that could have gone for 30 yards or more. Brees went on from there to complete 19 consecutive passes.
“I’m extremely happy for Mark,” Brees said. “Unfortunately he’s been hit by the injury bug since he’s been here, but Mark’s a great all-around football player. He can run the ball and catch it. You were just kind of waiting for the breakout performance. He’s healthy now and he’s rolling. He was a man on a mission.”
Another man accomplishing his mission is Ryan, who has transformed the Saints’ defense in one season from the worst in the league into a top-10 unit.
Dallas led twice early in the game — 3-0 on a 37-yard field goal by Dan Bailey that came after Sproles muffed a punt at the New Orleans 22, and 10-7 on a 7-yard touchdown by running back DeMarco Murray early in the second quarter. Those were among the few highlights for the Cowboys, who dropped into a first-place tie with the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East.
The Cowboys’ ailing defense got weaker when linebacker Sean Lee limped to the sideline in the second quarter due to a left hamstring injury.