Saints lose to Cowboys

Published 12:19 am Sunday, December 20, 2009

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints are marching toward perfection no more.

Tony Romo and DeMarcus Ware helped Dallas end its December doldrums and the Cowboys held off a frenzied rally by the Saints for a 24-17 victory Saturday night.

The loss by the Saints (13-1) left the Indianapolis Colts (14-0) as the NFL’s only unbeaten team this season.

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‘‘We’ll digest this. It’ll sting a little bit going down,’’ Saints coach Sean Payton said. ‘‘Nonetheless, it is what it is and we’ve got to get back to work next week. We have two important games in front of us and we’ll take that approach.’’

The high-powered Saints trailed 24-3 going into the fourth quarter, then scored two fast touchdowns. After Dallas kicker Nick Folk watched his 24-yard field goal try clang off the right upright shortly before the 2-minute warning, Brees got a final chance to tie it.

Brees quickly moved the Saints into Dallas territory. But on second down, Ware sacked Brees and forced a fumble that was recovered by the Cowboys with 6 seconds left.

‘‘As poorly as we played, we were fortunate just to have that chance on the final drive,’’ Payton said. ‘‘But we couldn’t get anything going, really.’’

Romo passed for 312 yards, including a 49-yard touchdown to Miles Austin. Ware returned from a neck injury that left his status in doubt and was part of a relentless Dallas pass rush that pressured Brees all night.

Marion Barber had two short touchdown runs for the Cowboys (9-5), who ended a two-game skid and proved they were good enough to beat the top team in the NFC in front of a charged-up, hostile crowd.

The Cowboys’ troubles in December had been well documented — they are 4-8 in the month in three seasons under coach Wade Phillips — but this win provided a dramatic boost to their playoff chances. They’ll hold on to a wild-card spot for at least another week.

The Saints did not score a touchdown until Mike Bell’s 1-yard run with 12:35 to go. Brees followed by capping a seven-play, 70-yard drive with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Lance Moore with 8 minutes left, cutting New Orleans’ deficit to 24-17.

That left it up to the Saints’ defense to hold once more. Dallas faced a third-and-7 on its own 23 and the crowd was going so wild Romo had to call timeout a moment before the play clock expired.

The noise was still deafening when Romo returned to the line of scrimmage, but that didn’t stop him from finding Austin on a short crossing route for a 32-yard gain. On the next play, Romo spun away from the rush and hit tight end John Phillips for a 23-yard gain to New Orleans’ 22. From there, Dallas went conservative and set up what looked to be a game-sealing field goal from nearly the same distance as Shaun Suisham’s miss two weeks ago, which allowed the Saints to come back and beat Washington in overtime.

When Folk’s kick bounced off the upright, the crowd erupted, sensing the Saints were simply destined not to loose. And it looked that way after Brees converted a frantic fourth down on a pass over the middle to Marques Colston, who made a one-handed catch.

The Saints marched to midfield in the final minute, but the Cowboys held firm. Ware stripped Brees for the second time in the game and lineman Jay Ratliff recovered, silencing the packed Superdome while the Cowboys leapt in the air and embraced one another.

Ware had to be taken to the hospital only a week earlier after what looked like a serious neck injury in Dallas’ loss to San Diego. He didn’t practice fully all week, but said he was feeling better and was cleared to play. He certainly looked rested and healed.

He sacked Brees twice, forcing fumbles that the Saints’ lost both times. The first one set up a field goal that gave Dallas a 17-3 lead at halftime. Linebacker Anthony Spencer also had two sacks.

Very little went right for Brees, who was intercepted once, sacked four times and pressured all night. Even what looked like a certain 36-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter slipped through Devery Henderson’s hands in the end zone. Brees was sacked by Spencer soon after and that drive ended with a punt.

The Cowboys outgained the Saints, 439 yards to 336, holding the Saints 90 yards and nearly 19 points below their averages in those categories. The Saints, who came in converting nearly 48 percent of third downs this season, converted only one of seven.