Saints look Super in demolition of Cowboys

NEW ORLEANS -- Productions like Sunday night are what the New Orleans Saints are all about in their best-case game-planning sessions.

Drew Brees spraying the football with precision accuracy. Darren Sproles zig-zagging through cracks of daylight. Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram, rumbling down the alley.

Marques Colston, back to life.

When the Saints pour it on in the fashion demonstrated during a 49-17 romp of the Dallas Cowboys inside the raucous Mercedes-Benz Superdome - with Brees passing for 392 yards and four TDs -they look so unbeatable.

Consider some facts:

•In producing their highest-scoring game of the season, the Saints racked up a franchise-record 625 yards of offense.
•They set an NFL single-game record with 40 first downs. That number almost matched the total number of offensive plays the Cowboys managed (43).
•Ingram notched his first career 100-yard game, ripping off 149 yards on 14 carries.
•Brees completed 34-of-41 passes and was in such a zone that at one point he completed 19 consecutive passes, matching his franchise record.

"You don't get the chance to play in games like this that often," said Saints coach Sean Payton, who graciously pointed out that they caught the injury-stung Cowboys at the right time. "The team we played was banged up."

And just think: The Saints' most lethal weapon, Jimmy Graham, wasn't operating at full throttle while nursing foot and elbow injuries. He still caught five passes for 59 yards.

So this is how they do it: Offense sets the tempo and lights up the scoreboard. The improved defense, now coordinated by Rob Ryan, protects the lead, minimizing big plays.

New Orleans didn't allow Dallas to convert a single third down (0-for-9), which is a statement in itself for Ryan, who was fired as the Cowboys defensive coordinator after last season.

Payton, yeah, he's plenty important, too. The whole thing collapsed when he wasn't around last season to push the buttons.

This might be a snapshot on the road to another Super Bowl berth.

That's not as presumptuous as it sounds. The Saints (7-2) rebounded from their loss against Rob's twin brother's team to hang onto sole possession of first place in the NFC South and re-assert themselves as a legit contender to take this thing all the way to the Meadowlands in February.

Sure, there's the matter of dealing with the San Francisco 49ers next. The defending NFC champs, undoubtedly grumpy after another home loss on Sunday, visit the Superdome next weekend.

And there's the idea of stiff-arming the surging Carolina Panthers - whom they meet twice during the second half of the season - to win the NFC South.

But the biggest "if" involves venue.

The NFC playoff picture this season looks like a hot real estate property.

It's all about location, location, location.

Ask the people in Seattle. If the playoffs began today, the Seahawks (9-1) would hold the No. 1 seed and, for my money, cash that in for a Super Bowl ticket.

Sure, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave them a run at CenturyLink Field last week, but the Seahawks are the Seahawks! when in Seattle, supported by their renowned 12th Man. Seattle is 4-0 at home this season and 63-29 (.685) since switching to the NFC in 2002, a home mark topped only by the Green Bay Packers among NFC teams during that span.

The Saints, meanwhile, have their own noisy home-field edge.

Memo to visitors: Perfect that silent snap count.

The problem for the Saints, though, still exists when they play away from the Superdome. They lost at the Meadowlands eight days ago, and two weeks before that fell victim to last-minute magic by Tom Brady at Gillette Stadium.

Until proven otherwise, this is not a team to trust on the road. Especially in January.

Yet if the Saints are to take this "Payton's Revenge" campaign all the way, they are going to have to win some tough outings on the road.

Maybe they found some hope on Sunday night. The Saints rushed for 242 yards. While Ingram ran wild, Thomas tore into Dallas for 87 yards on 17 carries.

The common denominator was illustrated by take-your-pick options for the runners. If not the gaping holes in the middle, there was room on the corners with the edges sealed.

A rushing game, even in this age of pass-happy football, is always a good thing in January. Now is a good time to find some rhythm and build some confidence in that regard.

"We proved we can run the ball," Graham said. "And if you're looking to win in the playoffs, you can't throw the ball 60 times."


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