Cowboys - Saints Preview & Prediction

A shootout might actually benefit the Saints, who aren't likely to stop Dallas' balanced attack with any consistency.

KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:15 ET

GAMEDATE: 12/10/06

SURFACE: Sportfield Realgrass

TV: NBC, Al Michaels, John Madden, Andrea Kremer

SERIES: 22nd meeting. The Cowboys lead the series, 14-7, despite the Saints winning the last four games. The Saints have won those four meetings by a combined score of 93-47. In their last matchup on Dec. 12, 2004, the Saints claimed a 27-13 decision over the Cowboys in Texas Stadium.

2006 RANKINGS: Saints: offense 1st (21st rush, 1st pass); defense 12th (26th rush, 4th pass). Cowboys: offense 4th (8th rush, 5th pass); defense 7th (4th rush, 12th pass).

PREDICTION: Cowboys 31-24

KEYS TO THE GAME: A shootout might actually benefit the Saints, who aren't likely to stop Dallas' balanced attack with any consistency. The problem for New Orleans is that WRs Joe Horn and Marques Colston continue to battle injuries that could keep one or both sidelined. The Saints made an increased effort to run the ball last weekend, but the Cowboys have the league's No. 4 run defense and a very athletic front seven. Dallas is far more vulnerable to the vertical passing game, so QB Drew Brees is going to have to push the ball down the field with whoever he has available at receiver. The Cowboys proved last Sunday that they can win even when QB Tony Romo is struggling a bit. Look for Dallas to lean on RBs Julius Jones and Marion Barber in an effort to keep Brees on the sideline as much as possible. If the Cowboys win the turnover battle, they should win the game because the Saints can't afford to waste possessions.

FAST FACTS: Saints: Coach Sean Payton was a Dallas assistant from 2003-05. ... Brees has nine touchdowns, one interception and a 112.5 passer rating in his past five road games. Cowboys: Romo leads the NFL with a 102.4 passer rating. He has a 105.3 rating in his six starts. ... WR Terrell Owens has 58 receptions for 938 yards and 11 TDs in 13 games against the Saints.

PERSONNEL NEWS
Saints: --WR Marques Colston did not practice again Thursday because of a sprained left ankle and is questionable for Sunday's game against the Cowboys.

--WR Joe Horn was not able to practice again Thursday and remains questionable for Sunday's game with a groin injury.

--RDE Will Smith, who missed last week's game with a knee injury, practiced again Thursday even though he's questionable for Sunday.

--RB Aaron Stecker was held out of practice again Thursday and is doubtful for Sunday's game with a hamstring injury.

--RB Reggie Bush, who was listed as probable Wednesday because of a mild shoulder injury, practiced Thursday and was taken off the injury list.

--SLB Scott Fujita practiced again Thursday despite an ankle problem and was removed from the injury report. --RT Jon Stinchcomb, who didn't work Wednesday because of a stomach virus, returned to practice Thursday and was deleted from the injury report.

Cowboys: --WR Patrick Crayton has 31 receptions for 468 yards and three touchdowns. They are all career highs, as Crayton's emergence has allowed the Cowboys to scale back their use of the two-tight end sets.

"I think I'm comfortable with playing Patrick pretty extensively," coach Bill Parcells said. "He'll block and he'll catch. He'll do both of those things, and he can do a passable job in the return game. ... That's a valuable thing for a receiver. He's smart. He can play more than one position. He's a good blocker. I think Patrick is maturing as a player and a person in the league. Now, I don't know if he's ever going to be a star, but if he's smart, he can parlay what he is for quite a while."

--T Marc Colombo has played beyond expectations. He has given up only one sack this season and has not been called for any holding penalties.

--QB Drew Bledsoe is making the difficult transition from starter to backup, and coach Bill Parcells is worried about him staying in tune with everything.

"I think you obviously have a concern about that when things of this nature happen," Parcells said. "And I would hope that he is diligent in his preparation because you're probably going to need him to do something. And I would hope he would be ready to do that if we needed him."

--QB Tony Romo was named NFC Player of Month for November. In his first full month as an NFL starting quarterback, Romo completed 85 of 117 passes (72.6 percent) for 1,124 yards with nine touchdowns and one interception for an NFL-best 124.7 passer rating. Romo posted a passer rating of at least 100.0 in three of the four games and guided Dallas to a 3-1 record.

INSIDE THE CAMPS
Saints: Saints defensive tackle Hollis Thomas will begin a four-game suspension Sunday despite his claims that a medication he took during training camp to control his asthma caused him to test positive for steroids.

Thomas, who was suspended for the remainder of the regular season by the NFL on Tuesday, denies taking the steroid clenbuterol -- which showed up in a routine urine sample he gave on Aug. 6 in Jackson, Miss.

"I never needed any enhancers," said Thomas, an 11-year veteran who can rejoin the team on Jan. 1. "I never wanted to be a cheater and don't consider myself a cheater."

Nevertheless, the NFL steroid policy approved by member teams and the NFL Players Association states that "team physicians may not prescribe, supply or otherwise facilitate a player's use of prohibited substances.

"Players are responsible for what is in their bodies, and a positive test result will not be excused because a player was unaware that he was taking a prohibited substance."

Thomas has been taking asthma medication prescribed by a team physician since training camp when triple-digit heat and stifling humidity made it difficult for him to breathe.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that the league's testing procedure is sophisticated enough to detect approved asthma medications. But beta-2 agonists, such as clenbuterol, are prohibited.

"There's no asthma medication on our banned substance list," Aiello said, "unless it's something that has ephedra in it. Players can apply for a special medical exemption. There are numerous players who have been approved for the therapeutic use of something on the banned list like a diuretic or ephedra.

"We're not discriminating against asthmatics, but there's nothing in asthma medication that would trigger a positive test. If there's something legitimate being taken on the banned list, there are allowances for that."

The suspension will cost Thomas, who has a base salary of $710,000, just more than $167,000. In his absence, the Saints will turn to third-year pro Rodney Leisle as well as four-year veteran Antwan Lake to plug up the middle of the defensive line.

Cowboys: Cowboys receiver Terrell Owens admits he wasn't paying attention when coach Bill Parcells talked about the Cowboys' quest for a championship on Monday.

He said was thinking about his birthday party, which took place later that evening in Hollywood. But Owens said it was not his intention to disrespect Parcells or what he was trying to say.

It's just that on days following the game he is trying to regroup from the previous day get away mentally before recharging things on Wednesday for the upcoming game.

Owens said he believes just as Parcells does that the Cowboys have a chance to do something special this season.

He said he will do his best to help the Cowboys, who have a four-game winning streak, go into the playoffs on a hot streak.

"I think he has every reason to really kind of speak positively because there are some positive things that have been happening here the last few weeks," Owens said. "Early in the year, we knew we had a good team, we just weren't playing four quarters. Obviously there were some inconsistencies with our play. Now we're jelling. ...

"We've put ourselves in a position to really make a push for this thing, get home-field advantage and maybe a first-round bye. We know we have a good team here. We're just looking forward to finishing the season strong, then starting a new season in the playoffs."

For the record, Owens is on pace for 92 catches for 1,220 yards and 11 touchdowns with the Cowboys -- not bad for a player who has been plagued by 11 drops, an accidental overdose, a hamstring injury in training camp, a fractured wrist and early-season complaints about not being involved in the offense.

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