Tale of the Tape: Dallas Cowboys at New Orleans Saints
Two teams with shaky leads in their respective divisions face off Sunday night when the New Orleans Saints entertain the Dallas Cowboys.
This game features the second-highest total of the week, and with good reason - both offenses can put up points in bunches. The Cowboys come in with a one-game lead over the Philadelphia Eagles in the mediocre NFC East, while the Saints are up a game on hard-charging Carolina in the NFC South.
Here's the breakdown in our betting tale of the tape:
The Cowboys find themselves in the middle of the pack in terms of total yards per game (342.8, 17th) thanks to a largely one-dimensional attack. Led by polarizing quarterback Tony Romo, Dallas is ninth in the NFL in average passing yards (267.1) while its 20 touchdowns through the air are third-most in the league. The run game has been far less successful, ranked 27th overall in yards per contest (75.7) with just five touchdowns and 3.7 yards per attempt.
The Saints have had one of the league's premier pass attacks for years - and that trend has continued through the first half of this season. New Orleans ranks third in the NFL with 315.6 passing yards per game - a fraction behind the second-place Detroit Lions - and has the second-most TDs in the NFL (21). Like Dallas, the Saints have had trouble generating much offense on the ground, ranking one spot ahead of the Cowboys at 79.8 yards per game.
Edge: New Orleans
If Saints quarterback Drew Brees isn't harassed by the Dallas pass rush, it could be a long day for the Cowboys. The NFC East leaders boast one of the worst pass defenses in football, allowing the second-highest average yard total (305.2) while surrendering a whopping 16 touchdowns. Dallas does have two things working for it: one of the highest interception totals in the NFL (12) and a decent run defense (114 yards against per game, 17th).
For all the grief New Orleans has taken over its past defensive struggles, the critics have rightfully fallen silent so far in 2013. The Saints have allowed the fourth-fewest passing yards in the league (1,695) while limiting opponents to eight touchdowns against nine interceptions. New Orleans is also among the NFL leaders with 26 sacks, but remains relatively easy to run against - the Saints are allowing the eight-most yards per game on the ground (121.3).
Edge: New Orleans
Dallas has the best kickoff return average in the NFL at 31.1 yards per attempt, and sits tied with the Chicago Bears for third in punt-return average (14.3). The Cowboys also excel in the return game, ranked 12th in average kickoff yardage (21.5) and 13th in yards per punt return (7.6). Veteran kicker Dan Bailey has had a strong year to date - going 16-for-18 on field-goal attempts - and connected from 41 and 44 yards out in last week's narrow victory over Minnesota.
New Orleans' return team pales in comparison to that of the Cowboys, averaging the third-fewest yards per kick return (20.4) while ranking 18th in punt return average (7.8). The Saints haven't defended kick returns well - allowing a whopping 26.4 yards per attempt - but have limited foes to just 5.9 yards per punt return on 12 opportunities. Kicker Garrett Hartley has struggled from long-range, making just 7-of-11 attempts from at least 40 yards out.
"They're probably pretty similar. Calvin's probably a bit faster but Graham is probably better at using his body, shielding you off because he is so big. He's a tough matchup because of his size and his speed. He can jump and run and he's got some shiftiness to him. So we're going to have to find him before the play and play accordingly." - Cowboys S Jeff Heath, comparing Saints TE Jimmy Graham to Detroit Lions star WR Calvin Johnson
"It's frustrating ... and it's everybody. On one play, it's not blocked correctly, on the next one it's not hitting the right hole ... it's obviously frustrating, especially as a lineman, protecting a guy like Drew Brees and becoming one-dimensional. That's not a good situation for us." - Saints T Zach Strief on his team's struggles running the ball