ARLINGTON, Texas — Jason Witten and the Dallas Cowboys can tell better than just about anyone the difference between the New Orleans Saints with and without coach Sean Payton.
The Saints hung on for a 34-31 overtime win in Texas two years ago on the same day they were eliminated from playoff contention in a lost season without their suspended coach.
Last year they became the first team in NFL history to get 40 first downs in a 49-17 blowout that was easily the worst for the Cowboys since coach Jason Garrett took over midway through the 2010 season.
“I think anytime you’re humbled like that, there’s a respect factor you have,” Witten said of a game that propelled the Saints back to the postseason with Payton in charge while Dallas missed for the fourth straight year.
“It was good for our team to watch that tape and to see it, see what they did to us. I’m sure they watched that tape as well.”
Payton will be on the sideline at the $1.2 billion home of the Cowboys on Sunday night after watching from his Dallas-area home in 2012 because of his season-long ban over the bounty scandal. He was on Bill Parcells’ staff in Dallas when he got the chance to coach the Saints.
“I’ve got a lot of close friends back there with that organization,” Payton said. “There’s a uniqueness about that program. It’s special. Just having those opportunities, and ... when the schedule comes out and you see that it’s a Sunday night game, that’s exciting.”
Drew Brees can share in the excitement because he’s thrown for 838 yards with seven touchdowns and no interceptions in his past two games against the Cowboys.
The former Texas high school star has won three straight against Dallas since the Cowboys beat the Saints in New Orleans when they were 13-0 and went on to win the Super Bowl in 2009. That win was the only one for Dallas in the past nine games against New Orleans.
“There’s a lot of new faces,” Payton said of the Cowboys. “The key, I think, and the message really was getting familiar with this team, the team we’re playing this weekend. These two teams really haven’t played each other yet when you look at the roster makeup.”
Things to watch in the fifth meeting in the past six seasons between the Saints and Cowboys, who lead the series 15-11 after winning 11 of the first 12 from 1967-84.
The Cowboys have won two in a row for their fourth straight 2-1 record in four full seasons under Garrett. But they’ve never made it to 3-1 and haven’t won three straight in almost two years.
The Saints (1-2) are trying to continue their recovery from an uncharacteristic 0-2 start under Payton. They took the first step with last week’s 20-9 victory over Minnesota.
Tony Romo skipped practice on Wednesday last week and played his best game since returning from back surgery in December in last week’s 34-31 win at St. Louis. He showed some mobility, found Dez Bryant wide open on a 68-yard touchdown pass and directed a rally from a 21-0 deficit.
So when he sat out Wednesday again this week, naturally the question of superstition came up. “No, it’s probably a little deeper than that, but you can write that if it helps,” Romo said with a smile.
Witten and Graham
Witten needs 106 yards to become the third tight end in league history with 10,000 yards receiving. And he’s squaring off against a standout in Jimmy Graham who’s likely to join that list someday if he stays healthy. He already has 4,117 yards early in his fifth season. Witten is in his 12th year.
Rob Ryan’s return
Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan returns to his old home field after the Cowboys fired him following the 2012 season. He orchestrated the biggest defensive turnaround since the 1970 merger last year, and that included holding the Cowboys to their lowest yardage total (193) in five years.
Sunday night magic
The Saints are 8-1 on Sunday night under the Payton era, easily explainable by outside linebacker Junior Galette. “Sunday night football, your mama’s watching, your aunt,” Galette said. “You know, everybody is going to be watching that game — your sixth-grade girlfriend. So you’re going to bring your ‘A’ game.”