Cowboys - Saints preview & prediction

The only people believing in the Cowboys now are the Cowboys themselves.

KICKOFF: Saturday, 8:20 ET
GAMEDATE: 12/19/09
SURFACE: Grass
TV: NFL Network (Bob Papa, Matt Millen)

KEYS TO THE GAME: If the Saints have shown an clear vulnerability, it's in defending the run the second half of the season. They allow 112.0 rushing yards per game overall, and the Cowboys will use a mix of three running backs in an effort to protect their defense and quiet a loud indoor crowd. QB Tony Romo must make solid reads and be accurate working against a defense that has 24 interceptions. The Cowboys could be getting FS Ken Hamlin back just in time. They are vulnerable in deep coverage, and that's exactly where Saints Brees will put the pressure on. He has 13 interceptions against one interception the past four games, and has thrown it 40-plus times in consecutive weeks as New Orleans has been more pass-heavy than earlier in the season.

FAST FACTS: Cowboys RB Marion Barber has averaged just 3.96 yards per carry the past five games. ... New Orleans is 6-0 and averaging 36.7 points at home this season.

PERSONNEL NEWS Cowboys: K Nick Folk has retained his job and the Cowboys are confident he will kick well against the Saints after missing six of his last nine kicks and one in each of the last five games.

"He's been real consistent hitting the ball, especially this week," coach Wade Phillips said. "I'm pleased about that. From talking to him, he feels he's hitting the ball well. He feels like he's worked out some of the things that he needed to work out, so I think his confidence level is good. I feel like he's going to be able to do it. He's shown it in practice he's hitting the ball better, so I feel good about it going into this game, or we wouldn't have him kicking."

--CB Chris McAlister was one of five players worked out by the Cowboys on Thursday. The others were running back Herb Donaldson, tackle Cliff Louis, defensive tackle Henry Smith (Texas A&M) and linebacker Leon Williams.

McAlister, an 11-year veteran and former first-round pick, is the most intriguing because he played two games with the Saints before being cut last week.

McAlister was signed by the Saints as a free agent Nov. 18. In his two games, he made four tackles. He also forced a fumble and recovered it in the Saints' overtime victory against the Redskins. The 11-year veteran spent his previous 10 seasons with the Baltimore Ravens.

--QB Tony Romo has played well in recent weeks, going a long way toward dispelling the notion that he performs poorly in December. He has a string of three straight games with over a 100 passer rating and three straight games without an interception, dating back to Thanksgiving Day. But considering that the Cowboys lost the last two games, it's no consolation to Romo. Even though his stats are better, the team is 0-2 in December this season and he is now 5-10 in December games since 2006.

"It doesn't matter," Romo said. "It's only about winning. If I perform poorly this week and we win, it's a lot better than performing well and losing. This position is completely judged almost solely on winning and losing. That's the great thing about this sport. We put so much stock in that. I enjoy that, too. It should be that way."

Saints: LCB Jabari Greer won't play against the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday as he recovers from sports hernia surgery. He has missed the last five games.

--DT Sedrick Ellis, who missed four games earlier this season with a sprained right knee, did not work again Thursday and could miss Saturday night's game.

--TE Jeremy Shockey returned to practice on a limited basis Thursday despite a left turf toe injury. His status for Saturday's game is unclear.

--RT Jon Stinchcomb was able to work limited Thursday after missing Wednesday's practice with a knee injury, but his status for Saturday was unknown.

--DE Bobby McCray, who has battled a back problem for most of the season, practiced limited on Thursday after sitting out Wednesday's workout.

--K Garrett Hartley worked on a limited basis with a right hip injury Thursday after being held out of Wednesday's practice session.

--SLB Scott Fujita was limited again Thursday and may have a shot at playing Saturday after missing the last two games following surgery for a staph infection in his left knee on Dec. 4.

--RCB Tracy Porter could play against the Cowboys after practicing limited once again Thursday. He has missed the last four games with a sprained MCL in his left knee.

--LB Marvin Mitchell, who has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury, was limited in practice again Thursday.

--MLB Jonathan Vilma was limited again Thursday with a sore knee but should be ready for the Cowboys.

--RB Pierre Thomas worked on a limited basis Thursday because of a hip injury and his availability for Saturday was unknown.

--RG Jahri Evans, who has been bothered by a toe injury, participated in Thursday's practice and should play against the Cowboys.

--LG Carl Nicks was limited by a back injury again Thursday but should be available Saturday night.

--C Jonathan Goodwin, who has been bothered by an ankle injury most of the season, will play Saturday despite being limited Thursday.

--T Jermon Bushrod worked limited Thursday with a thumb injury and should play Saturday.

--FS Usama Young has a hip injury but practiced on a limited basis Thursday.

INSIDE THE CAMPS: Cowboys: Nobody is giving the Cowboys a chance against the Saints. The bandwagon is empty.

The blue Kool-Aid is still on the shelf unopened.

The only people believing in the Cowboys now are the Cowboys themselves.

The players and coach Wade Phillips have likewise adopted an us-against-the world mentality. They say they are ready for the challenge of the undefeated Saints.

"Usually when people say you can't do something, people bow up that have a lot of pride," Phillips said. I don't think our confidence is we can't do it and we have to do something else to be able to do it. We have confidence in our football team. We're not going to bow down to these guys. We think we can win. Every game we've been in so far, we thought we could win. I think we feel the same way going into this one."

Although the Cowboys are riding a two-game losing streak and are on the brink of being the odd team out of the playoff race, Phillips said this is not a desperate team. He said the Cowboys still control their own destiny and will play with a sense of urgency.

"I think we're confident going into games, I don't think we're desperate," Phillips said. "I think we know how important the games are and what it can do for us. We're not in a desperation mode. I think it's urgent. We know that. I have no doubt our players are going to give everything they can to win this game. Don't think that's desperate though."

Saints: Because the Minnesota Vikings are right behind them in the race for home-field advantage in the NFC, the undefeated Saints have had to keep the pedal to the metal longer than the unbeaten Indianapolis Colts in the AFC.

The Saints (13-0) can't afford to let up this week, either, considering the Dallas Cowboys (8-5) will be desperate for a win to keep their playoff hopes alive when they meet in the Superdome on Saturday night.

With the NFC South title and a first-round bye already secured, the Saints could clinch home-field advantage this weekend with a win against the Cowboys and a loss by the Vikings to the Carolina Panthers.

If both those things were to happen, Saints coach Sean Payton would have an interesting decision to make: to go all out for the second 16-0 regular-season campaign in NFL history or rest his players for a strong postseason push.

Already, Payton has told his team that he will get their input on what course of action to take as the Saints try to get to the Super Bowl for the first time.

"I think he's phrased it this way: That decision is up to the team," quarterback Drew Brees said. "That's something that we will all talk about. Let's hope that we have that conversation."

But it's already apparent that the Saints are ready to push ahead and try to go 16-0 and join the 2007 New England Patriots as the only teams to do that.

"You don't have many opportunities like this, do you? It's something to consider," Brees said, adding that many of his teammates feel the same way. "That's something we'll talk about inside our locker room, and then we'll let you know."

PREDICTION: Saints 27-24

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