Saints Cowboys Football

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott celebrates a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints during the first half of Thursday's game in Arlington, Texas.

ARLINGTON, Texas — The screens and dump-offs were there.

There wasn’t much else. The Cowboys played a physical brand of defense, using their big defensive backs to jam and grab and disrupt the passing game, and the Dallas pass rush created its own set of issues. The NFL’s best offense looked regular during Thursday’s 13-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

It was like taking an Aston Martin in for a repair and driving home in a Kia. The Kia can get you there when everything else is working and operational. But everything else wasn’t working and operational. The best offense in the league was actually below average for a night.

“A lot of missed plays out there. It was more on us, especially the receivers; we were just out of whack today,” wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith said. “They played a good game, but I put the accountability more on us.”

That’s kind of a shocking statement. No one thought such a thing was possible for this group. But it will be OK. Drew Brees can throw incomplete passes and interceptions, get pressured now and then like regular quarterbacks, and still have a good season. Defensive backs can hold Michael Thomas and get away with it and limit his production. It can become clear why New Orleans thought it needed another big, physical wide receiver.

Believe it or not, games like Thursday are how the rest of the NFL lives. People in those other cities are actually used to watching their offenses go three or four drives without scoring. They actually know what their punter looks like in pads and not just from social media posts of him getting onto planes and hanging out at a locker.

So, yeah, the Saints threw on a pair of jeans with some strategically placed holes, pulled on a hoodie and capped it off with a dad hat and hung out with the regular people for a night. But let’s be real. When business hours open next week, this team is going to be back in a perfectly tailored suit.

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"No one is going to sit back and wait for us to punch them in the mouth," tackle Jermon Bushrod said. "They’re going to punch us, and we got to punch back. That’s just what it is.”

Let’s start here: The Saints didn’t have a passing play over 15 yards until late in the third quarter, when Brees connected with undrafted rookie Keith Kirkwood for a 30-yard touchdown. Up until that play, the leader for the MVP award was averaging 3.3 yards per attempt. He finished with 18-of-27 passing for 127 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

Bizarre, considering how the season has played out. Weird, considering how good Brees has been. Fitting, after seeing how well this Dallas defense plays. Sometimes you find a team that matches up in all the right ways and life becomes difficult.

And sometimes you find a team that can get away with some stuff on a night where the officiating was a little odd and use it to help limit Thomas to five receptions for 40 yards.

“They was holding for sure. When you’re running and getting pulled on, you got extremities and stuff that get jammed and somebody weighing over you,” Thomas said. “My job now is to make sure they can’t hold me. I have to play more violent. I have to play more physical. I have to get stronger.”

No one is making an excuse for New Orleans. It’s just real. There were calls on both sides missed. And there was stuff the Saints just missed that contributed to this result, like Brees throwing an interception with a little more than two minutes left while trying to throw the ball away on a potential game-winning drive.

Some will point to the 0-for-4 start, the first of his career, as evidence of Brees having a poor game, but that’s not entirely fair. Keith Kirkwood dropped the first pass, and Brees threw an incredibly placed back-shoulder throw to Thomas that slipped out and hit the turf.

But on closer inspection, there were a few other things throughout the first half that looked a little bit off. On the pass Dan Arnold fumbled in the first half, the quarterback placed the ball a little bit behind his mark. The tight end could have stopped to secure the ball, but he was looking for a score. There was also a screen pass to Mark Ingram that was off the mark, and a slant to Tre’Quan Smith came out funny.

The best quarterback in the league had an off day. It happens. The tone of the game also didn’t help. New Orleans got off to a slow start, and the rest followed. The Saints punted or turned the ball over on downs the first four drives and didn’t score in the first half, the first time that has happened in 72 games, snapping the NFL’s longest streak. With how well New Orleans has performed on opening drives this season, and how sharp Brees has been, this wouldn’t have been the season where you predicted either of those things to happen.

But it did.

“We would love to be perfect. It wasn’t in the plan for us to be perfect,” Bushrod said. “That’s OK. Our goals are still in front of us. We have four more weeks to do what we need to do."

Now New Orleans has to bounce back and start a new streak. The Saints won’t be down here long.


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Follow Nick Underhill on Twitter, @nick_underhill.​