Marching Time

The test has arrived. You know the one. Not the final exam, but one which counts for about 70% of your total grade.

Quickly realized is the amount of classes skipped, the thoroughness (or lack thereof) of the study habits and the desire to excel. Well, the NFL is ready to plop that critical and all-telling exam in the Cowboys' lap. To emphasize the importance of the task at hand, the League has decided to turn the spotlights a little brighter and place the test takers on a national viewing stage. The sweat beads are more magnified as the answers are frantically scribbled with the world watching.

So, how will they score?

The New Orleans Saints present a hefty challenge on many fronts, and there's a ton at stake with Sunday's contest. For starters, it's the onset of playoff positioning. As pathetic as it is, 8-8 gets you a NFC playoff invitation this year. Ladies and gentlemen, your Dallas Cowboys are in. December is the NFL's version of the PGA's Saturday. Instead of "moving day," it's moving month. With identical records and division leads, a Cowboys' win will give them a head-to-head advantage when it comes down to hosting or obtaining home field advantage. It's a very important game for post season positioning. Beyond making plans for January, this match-up is appealing for so many more reasons. Let's explore.

Personal knowledge and insight can be highly-advantageous if, and only if, the potential competitive edge is actually acted upon or implemented. Simply having the knowledge is not enough without proper execution. The Saints are populated with Cowboys' ties. Players and coaches. So, what, if any, competitive advantage do the Saints enjoy? Probably not as much as people think. Film is available to all, and most secrets are really not secrets at all. Sure, Sean Payton and Gary Gibbs know the Cowboys' personnel, but it's highly doubtful they'll move away from their own bread and butter to specifically scheme for the Cowboys. Like any other NFL team, they'll react to what they see on film. It's probably coincidence, but the Saints employ Dan Dalrymple and Adam Zimmer as members of their coaching staff. In checking bios and pictures, Dan doesn't look much like Rich, but Adam sure bears resemblance to a one Mike Zimmer. Could it be?

The familiarity of players goes both ways in this game. The Cowboys will also see familiar names and faces when squaring off with New Orleans. It will be old home week and a reunion of sorts for Copper, Cundiff, Fujita, Petitti, Shanle and Stoutmire. The last not during the Parcells' tenure, but Omar does have former Cowboys' ties. Thus, familiarity will be prevalent, but it's highly doubtful it will be a game determinant. The exception being Billy Cundiff. He could have a hand, rather foot, in the outcome of this contest. Don't bet against it coming down to a Cundiff or Gramatica attempt to decide the winner.

Jerry Jones was on local radio this morning admitting he was advised, by respected NFL types, to make a run at Drew Brees. He did not expound whether the advice dated back to the 2001 Draft or not, but Brees came highly-recommended as he positioned himself to leave San Diego. Jerry divulged the shoulder was an organizational concern, and they didn't feel like it was a road they wanted to travel. While no regrets were expressed, its clear Jerry continually has his ears open to professional football opinions. Had Tony Romo not come upon the scene, its likely Jerry would have been kicking himself for not pursuing the Brees advice with vigor.

A nod of the cap to Sean Payton and the Saints organization. They extended a trade offer for Tony Romo earlier this year, and they were also the recipients of the Drew Brees sweepstakes. Knowing what the NFL now knows, both ventures would have paid off handsomely for an organization which is possibly the cornerstone of a city reclamation project. Some might argue even pre-Katrina, but the city remains in dire condition following the 2005 disaster. The Saints provide hope, and Drew Brees provides the necessary spark and leadership. It didn't take long for the "Aaron who?" conversations to commence between spoonfuls of jambalaya. In a state rich with political strife and back room deals, the Saints are truly marching to a different tune.

The national stage will bear witness to two of the most accurate and efficient quarterbacks in the League today. Rest assured, Lovie Smith, with their playoff hopes currently riding pine, would absolutely kill for either Brees or Romo. He has no other choice than to remain politically correct, but Brees and Romo represent the one element keeping the Bears from being anointed as the NFC representative to the Super Bowl. It'll be most interesting to see the two, young signal callers square off in a most meaningful December contest. While many things can happen on the road to potential mediocre, good or great careers, Brees and Romo represent potential bright spots and future hopes for the League in years to come. The League could use a few more franchise representatives who don't flip the double bird or whine at the drop of a pass. Both clubs possess potent offenses and effective defenses. However, the contest will hinge on the play of the Dallas Cowboys defensive unit.

The numbers don't lie, and the Saints are the only team in the NFL averaging over 400 yards per game on offense. The Saints have one of the youngest and effective offensive lines in the game, and this is a unit that lost LeCharles Bentley, a Pro Bowl center, to free agency. This bodes well for Brees' health and longevity. Their offensive line has only surrendered 14 sacks for the year. Most impressive, and when you consider they are also one of the least penalized (62 infractions for 474 yards) teams in the NFL, it demonstrates great discipline to go along with the overall talent and execution.

The Cowboys must manufacture and orchestrate ways to get to Drew Brees. Hopefully Mike Zimmer is dusting off the Indianapolis game film as it will take that kind of pressure and attack to rattle Brees' cage. They'll have to strategically bring the heat without leaving the corners stranded on the islands for days. Indy had all the necessary fire power, but this Saints team is equally impressive on the offensive side of the ball. Hopefully the front seven will be rotated with regularity and fresh legs will be abundant. This will be a speed game the likes of nothing yet seen this year. If the Saints are suspect on any front, it's the turnover margin.

Opportunity knocks, and when it does, the Cowboys must take advantage and answer the call. One of the telling differentials is the point swing in give and takeaways. The Saints are a -6 compared to the Cowboys +7. The Saints have a tendency to put it on the carpet and get the ball picked. The Cowboys have to continue forcing the issue and creating opportunities. Pressure is the only way to force mistakes and generate chances. Zimmer cannot allow the troops to hang back and expect things to come their way. Time to crank it up a notch or two.

A win here would be most welcomed, and it will have set the vital stage, winning meaningful games in December, for a solid playoff run. Quality play in the month Santa arrives bodes well for momentum. The cliché of clichés is a team controlling its own destiny, but the Cowboys do truly have the makings of something special. Smart, opportunistic football is the way to a division, and hoped for, conference title. Sunday night will certainly be a don't miss viewing in prime time. Time for Dallas to make a huge NFC statement. The attack point is Mike McKenzie, and Romo needs to find him right away. Whether Owens or Glenn, send them deep, and send them often. It should be one to remember.

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