ARLINGTON, Texas — For one of the few times since 2006, the New Orleans Saints are cast in the role of possible spoilers this week.
It’s not the position any team wants to be in with two games to play in the season, but with their playoff hopes hanging by an extremely thin thread, the Saints are focused only on finishing with a break-even season.
If that means dealing a blow to the Dallas Cowboys’ playoff hopes, which have soared in December with a three-game winning streak, so be it.
The Cowboys (8-6) were two games behind the New York Giants in the NFC East race when the month began but are in a three-way tie for the division lead going into Sunday’s noon game with the Saints (6-8) in Cowboys Stadium.
Spoiling things for the Cowboys, however, isn’t on the minds of the Saints, who must win Sunday and next week and hope several other things happen to get into the playoffs.
Which is why they’re focused on just two things, interim coach Joe Vitt said.
“We are trying to get better every day and we are trying to win a football game,” he said. “That’s what we do around here. The process does not, and is not, going to change.”
In other words, this game has nothing to do with the Cowboys and everything to do with the Saints as they head to the finish line of a tumultuous season.
While it would be easy to start thinking about next season at this point, the Saints are still fighting for something this season.
“We are here to win games,” Vitt said when asked about the evaluation process for the future. “We are all being evaluated, on a daily basis, in practice and in games. The process stays the same.”
It could easily have been the same for the Cowboys, who were an inconsistent 3-5 team at midseason and 5-6 after a crushing 38-31 Thanksgiving Day loss to the Washington Redskins at home.
But narrow wins over Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, by a total of nine points, have given them confidence and a lot of hope that they can get into the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
“They’re playing for a lot,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said of playing a team that has won five of its past six games. “They’re playing for a playoff spot and division championship, so we know we’re going to get their best performance.
“Despite the fact that we have this very small chance at the playoffs, we still have a lot to play for, too, because of the type of guys we have and the way we want to finish this season.”
While the playoffs are a long, long shot at best, the Saints will be playing with some confidence as well. They’re coming off a 41-0 beating of the Tampa Bay Bucs with a solid performance on both sides of the ball as well as special teams.
The most satisfying part of the victory for the Saints was the shutout that came from a defense that had been giving up nearly 30 points per game and ranks last in total yards allowed.
But after playing a lot better in the last seven weeks, the motivation is still there defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and his group.
For this week, he said, the motivation is to not think that was their best game of the season — even though it may have been.
“That should always be the challenge in anything you are in: Your best game should be the next game,” said Spagnuolo, whose defense forced five turnovers and had two sacks in pitching the shutout.
“We did well, (but) we want to do it better. Anything we didn’t do well, we certainly want to improve on. If you’re going to help your football team win, you are going to have to keep points off the board. I think that will motivate them.”
This week, the Saints will be facing another offensive team that has a vast array of weapons in quarterback Tony Romo, tight end Jason Witten, and wide receivers Dez Bryant and Miles Austin.
With the exception of a 52-27 loss to the Giants two weeks ago, the Saints have done a much better job of defending their opponents’ top weapons.
“Hopefully, we can build on it,” Spagnuolo said about going against the Cowboys’ eighth-ranked offense that has been more consistent in going 5-1 to climb back into the division race. “I’ll go back to what I said: When all is said and done, I hope this (Bucs game) is not our best performance of the year.”