NFL Monday Morning Madness (Friday Edition): Cowboys halt Saints + Patriots begin season-defining stretch

With shades of 2009 pulled into force, the Cowboys ended the Saints’ 10-game winning streak via a 13-10 upset at home, vaulting them further along in the race for the NFC East crown, and solidifying them as a team to monitor in the NFC.

The Cowboys led the Saints 13-0 before a Brett Maher field goal finally put New Orleans on the board with 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter. The Saints rallied to cut the lead to 13-10 before Drew Brees threw a costly interception to Jourdan Lewis with 2:08 remaining, leading to a key Cowboys win.

To hold an offense as hot as the Saints (37.2 points per game entering Thursday) to zero points — and limit Drew Brees to 127 passing yards total — through the game’s first 35 minutes is absurd. Dallas’ defense has turned into one of the league’s best units, and at just the right time.

On offense, Dallas controlled the clock behind the Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL’s leading rusher. And they produced through the air when needed behind Dak Prescott and No. 1 wide receiver Amari Cooper, this year’s best midseason acquisition. But overall it was a lukewarm performance for a unit that will need more consistency if it plans to make a serious run in January.

Prescott missed Michael Gallup on a wide-open pump-and-go attempt that would have iced the game. Later on the drive, the Cowboys quarterback fumbled the ball back to the Saints before Lewis’ interception two plays later. But Dak was sharp otherwise, going connecting on 24 of his 28 pass attempts, while throwing for an early score to Elliott on a 16-yard screen pass.

The Cowboys host the Eagles next week. A win would likely cripple the defending Super Bowl champs and nearly clinch the NFC East for Dallas, before they’d travel to the Indianapolis to face the red-hot Colts, who are serving as the AFC’s version of the Cowboys, to a degree.

The Saints will get back on the horse and attempt to close out a tough schedule by winning out, and hoping the Rams (10-1) drop a game to ensure New Orleans takes back the NFC’s No. 1 seed.

The Saints are still the best team in football, but with just 10 points in Dallas, the lack of offensive weapons beyond Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara were notable for the first time all season. And because of that, the Rams remain the most talented team in football.

It’ll be interesting to look back in January or February to see if this loss was merely a speed bump for the Saints or the start of something more sinister for their season.

All we know today is that the Cowboys are in the midst of a late-season push that no one expected from them a month ago.

Are Patriots poised for another patented late-season run?

As the Patriots reach the homestretch of what’s been more of a topsy turvy season than usual, the next three games may very well define their season.

With upcoming games against the Vikings, Dolphins and Steelers, New England is entering a phase all too familiar to veterans of the team, who are hoping to inspire newcomers to carry the load in December.

Among the veterans who are used to this run are Tom Brady, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski, as the latter will need to stay healthy for the Patriots to have any shot at a championship run. Even though he doesn’t dominate quite as consistently as he used to, Gronk still consistently draws double coverage, opening things up for Brady’s other options.

Rob Gronkowski vs Texans
Rob Gronkowski prepares for a catch versus the Texans’ double coverage. (Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

Among the newcomers with important roles in the Patriots’ impending success are No. 1 wide receiver Josh Gordon, and rookie running back Sony Michel. With an aging Edelman and Gronkowski, Michel and Gordon (along with James White) have become focal points of the team’s current offense.

Up next are the talented Vikings, who may look to slow down Gordon with Xavier Rhodes (if he plays through an injury) and Gronkowski with Harrison Smith, meaning the young running back core of Michel and White may be asked to anchor the load on offense.

In Miami the Patriots will look to improve in one of their few house of horrors, to grab a win and most clinch the AFC East.

Then there’s the game in Pittsburgh, which may be the ultimate decider for the AFC’s No. 2 seed if the Texans to slip up. New England is all too familiar with this slate, seeing as they faced road games back-to-back in the same weeks on the schedule last year, losing to the Dolphins on a Monday Night contest before winning a thriller in Pittsburgh on a last-second goal line interception by Duron Harmon.

Despite having the Steelers number, Pittsburgh has the parts to derail New England’s defense, starting with their one-two punch at wide receiver with Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.

To have any chance at the AFC’s No. 1 seed, the Patriots will likely have to win out. Their toughest stretch of the season awaits. It’s gut-check time, which is a sports moment all too familiar this time of year in the Northeast pocket of the United States.

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