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Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) throws to New Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson (82) against the Dallas Cowboys in the Superdome in New Orleans, La. Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015.

The New Orleans Saints' high-powered offense faces off against one of the league's top defenses in the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday. Here is a preview of the game.

FOUR DOWNS

Back to life: Maybe the trade for Amari Cooper wasn’t as bad as it looked at first. He still might not be worth a first-round pick, but he is playing well for Dallas. The wide receiver has 349 yards and three touchdowns in four games after posting 338 and seven touchdowns in seven games for Oakland.

On a run: Sheldon Rankins has picked up five sacks, eight quarterback hits and six tackles for a loss in his last five games. The interior defensive lineman is starting to look like one of the better defensive tackles in the league. The Dallas line can be beat, especially if Rankins lines up away from Zach Martin at times.

Have a plan: This could be a week where New Orleans uses more heavy sets. Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence has proven himself to be one of the best edge rushers in the league. The Saints need to have a plan to slow him down, which should include a heavy dose of chipping throughout the night.

Get after it: New Orleans might want to do a heat check on cornerback Chidobe Awuzie early in the game. The cornerback has been shaky in coverage at times this season. If it’s easier to go through him than cornerback Byron Jones, who has played well this season, Sean Payton will have no issue directing his offense that way.


FILM STUDY

Saints offense is rolling, but Cowboys defense could be biggest test

New Orleans has played some quality defenses this season.

Baltimore, Minnesota and Washington all rank within the top 10, even if the Saints made some of those teams appear fraudulent at various points this season. Seeing the way New Orleans so easily handled some of those games has made it difficult to take anyone too seriously, but the Saints need to be careful not to sleep on the Cowboys.

Dallas, which has only surrendered 19.4 points per game, has one of the stingier defenses in the NFL, and will do everything it can to try and slow down the league’s best offense.

“The Cowboys defense is playing just as well as any defense in the league,” coach Sean Payton said. “We are going to have to be able to handle that, handle the noise. And their front does a great job of getting on your edge, and the movement they present, and the challenges they present are difficult.”

They also offer some challenges in the secondary. Byron Jones, who spent the last two years playing safety, has been playing at a very high level since moving back to cornerback this season. According to Pro Football Focus, he has only allowed 23 receptions on 46 targets for 261 yards this season.

Payton said he has been impressed by the way Jones is playing.

“He’s long. He has done really well,” Payton said. “He is having a good year. He is real comfortable in the press technique. The scheme really fits his skill set. He is instinctive. He has good ball skills. I think he’s playing real well.”

The Saints have one of the best offensive lines in the league, so it will be interesting to see how they perform against a solid Dallas front. They also have one of the best passing games in the NFL.

No one has really looked capable of slowing this team down this season. The Cowboys might just be the biggest test yet, but until someone does it, it’s hard to take any threat too seriously.


EXPERT PREDICTIONS

Nick Underhill

Saints 34, Cowboys 17

The Cowboys are playing good football. They’re strong on defense, and the offense has looked better the last few weeks. The run defense will be put to the test. But it just feels like New Orleans is rolling over everything that comes in its path.

Rod Walker

Saints 31, Cowboys 21

The Saints are coming off a dominant defensive performance, holding Atlanta to just 26 yards on the ground. Now they must try to keep the NFL's leading rusher, Ezekiel Elliott in check. Here's guessing the defense is up to the challenge and Drew Brees has a big day in return to home state.

Nathan Brown

Saints 34, Cowboys 28

The Saints run defense will be up to its toughest task yet, but even if they struggle there, New Orleans has proven they can win shootouts.

Scott Rabalais

Saints 30, Cowboys 23

The NFL’s top point per game differential (plus-14) demonstrates how well the Saints have played during their 10-game winning streak. The Cowboys have been salty of late, but the Saints skill and physicality will wear down Dallas as New Orleans sweeps the NFC (L)East.


NUMBERS TO KNOW

44: Percentage of third downs the Cowboys have allowed opponents to convert

13: Turnovers by the Cowboys, which ranks 19th in the NFL.

69.1: Percentage of passes completed on the Cowboys this season.

4.9: Yards per carry Dallas is averaging on offense.


WHO HAS THE EDGE?

When the Saints pass

Advantage: Saints

This one isn’t changing, and the passing attack is only getting better as it becomes more diversified.

When the Saints run

Advantage: Dallas

This should be a good battle. Dallas only allows 3.7 yards rushing per attempt, but the Saints have Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram.

When the Cowboys pass

Advantage: Saints

Dallas has looked better throwing the ball the last few weeks, but the Saints have looked better defending it.

When the Cowboys run

Advantage: Saints

Same deal, but flipped. The Saints only allow 3.6 yards rushing per attempt, but the Cowboys have Ezekiel Elliott

Special teams

Advantage: Saints

Thomas Morstead and Wil Lutz are a great combination for New Orleans. The return game could be better, though.


SAINTS MAILBAG

Q:  Predict Teddy Bridgewater’s future with the team. Assuming Drew Brees doesn't want to retire, would Teddy be willing to sign a multi-year deal in order to patiently wait for a starting role? Would the Saints be willing to pay Teddy low end starter money in order to lock up Brees' successor considering all of the upcoming contracts? – Reagan Gloer

A: There haven’t been a lot of clues as to how things will play out with Teddy Bridgewater beyond this season.

It was interesting when, during a Sirius XM interview, general manager Mickey Loomis spoke about the possibility of a future for Bridgewater, and how the team is getting the first look at him. But that hardly means anything concrete.

The way Brees is playing, it’s hard to even know when the end will come. I have no idea what Bridgewater is thinking because he hasn’t mentioned anything beyond this season, but I think it would be hard for him to remain in an uncertain situation.

I have to assume that he wants to be a starter again at some point. He’s 26 and has already lost multiple seasons due to injury and circumstance.

On the other hand, he might see a great situation here. Maybe another good one doesn’t present itself this offseason, and he decides to wait it out. You never know. It will be fascinating to see how it plays out.

I think the Saints made the trade for Bridgewater while looking at this season only. They knew they had a good team that needed insurance. Bridgewater was the best possible plan. That doesn’t prohibit the view from changing, but I believe this started as a 2018 move.

Q: Do you think it was so cold in the press box because #CarrSzn finally made its way down to New Orleans? – Eddy Guttierrez III

A: All Austin Carr does is scores touchdowns.

The New Orleans wide receiver has two catches the last two weeks, and has also scored touchdown. I don’t know what’s colder than that efficiency rating.

In all seriousness, after weeks and weeks of talking about how New Orleans was lacking options at wide receiver behind Michael Thomas, the other guys on the roster have stepped up in a big way the last few weeks. Tre’Quan Smith, Carr, Keith Kirkwood and Tommylee Lewis have all made plays when called upon.

If Ted Ginn Jr. is able to come back from his knee injury, his fit in the offense is obvious. He’ll take back over as the deep threat and continue making plays. It’s not quite as clear how and where Brandon Marshall will fit in once he’s ready to contribute.

He’s a big target, and the Saints will certainly figure out how to use him, but it will be interesting to see who he replaces on the roster. Can the Saints carry all their receivers? Do they want to risk losing one? It will be a tough decision.

Q:  How does this team compare with previous New England teams you have covered? – Dharma

A: I covered some really good teams when I was in New England from 2010-2013. They lost twice in the AFC title game, lost a Super Bowl and lost in the divisional round.

This might be recency bias, but I’m not sure any of those teams were better. The New England team that went to the Super Bowl had Julian Edelman playing cornerback at times. This Saints team feels more complete.

There are still flaws and other little things that need to be cleaned up, but it feels like things are heading the right direction. But we really won’t know until the end of the year. One of those New England teams went 14-2 and lost in the divisional round. I probably would have argued for them.


MVP Watch

1. Drew Brees: QB, Saints

Nothing changed after last week. His interception was only the second one he’s thrown this season, and it was the result of a missed pass-interference call.

2. Patrick Mahomes: QB, Chiefs

Can’t fall on a bye week. The future is so exciting for Mahomes. To be this good, this fast is truly impressive. He doesn’t appear to be fading at all as the season wears on.

3. Aaron Donald: DT, Rams

Donald had the week off as the Rams were on their bye. There is a legitimate argument to be made for Donald being the most talented player in the NFL. Either side of the ball.

Others

  • Jared Goff, QB, Rams
  • Khalil Mack, LB, Bears
  • Todd Gurley, RB, Rams
  • Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers
  • Andrew Luck, QB, Colts

Follow Nick Underhill on Twitter, @nick_underhill.​