Arlington, Texas – There was no coat of sugar layered onto what transpired Sunday night at AT&T Stadium between New Orleans and Dallas, no honey drizzled over it to make it more palatable to the taste buds.
The Saints are 1-3 after a 38-17 loss to the Cowboys in a nationally televised game that left New Orleans just one game out of first place in the NFC South Division, but significantly farther than that from being the team it aspires and expected to be at the end of the first quarter of the season.
"Obviously, we struggled in all areas," Coach Sean Payton said. "First off, credit Dallas. I thought they played winning football in all three phases.
"We struggled offensively, defensively, kicking game, coaching. There's not going to be much good to see on this film. We're 1-3 right now, and that's about how we're playing."
The tone was a stark contrast to the sounds and mood that emanated from the Saints' locker room after 37-34 and 26-24 road losses to Atlanta and Cleveland in the first two games of the season. The Saints, now winless in their three road games this season, were less than a handful of plays from winning those games.
Sunday night, Dallas led 7-0 after the first quarter, 24-0 at halftime and 31-3 entering the fourth. The Cowboys (3-1) had touchdown drives that were long (80 and 77 yards) and short (a couple of 39-yarders), that were time-consuming (7:10) and eye-blink quick (54 seconds).
They converted their first three third-down attempts and finished 8 for 14, but held the Saints to 4 for 10 and forced three turnovers, while committing none.
Dallas played keep-away (a 34:45-25:15 advantage in time of possession) and ran for 190 yards, including 149 and two touchdowns on 24 carries by DeMarco Murray, who entered the game as the league's leading rusher, with 385 yards on 75 carries.
Easily, it was the most productive and efficient an opponent has been against the Saints across the board in the first four games.
"There's no positive from this," said safety Kenny Vaccaro, who had seven tackles and a sack. "We're 1-3, we lost in all phases and we've got to get this thing turned around.
"It got away (defensively) in the run game. (If) you can't stop the run, a team's whole playbook is open. They can do what they want. They kind of control you."
Payton agreed with that summary, and went further.
"I think one hidden stat was our inconsistency running it when we wanted to, and their ability to run it when they wanted to," he said.
The Cowboys won the toss, elected to receive and promptly embarked on a 12-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that lasted 7:10 and ended on a 6-yard pass from Tony Romo to Terrance Williams. Dallas converted twice on third down on the drive and had plays of 15, 16 and 11 yards.
New Orleans' first drive ended on a punt, after it had driven from its 20 to the Dallas 45, and that proved to be its only possession of the first quarter. The Saints forced a punt on Dallas' next drive and drove from their 12 to the Cowboys 30 with 9:13 left in the second quarter. But after the drive stalled with a 7-yard gain on third-and-10, Shayne Graham's 41-yard field-goal attempt sailed wide right.
Dallas countered with a drive that ended on Dan Bailey's 51-yard field goal with 5:38 left in the first half, to take a 10-0 lead.
The next New Orleans drive ended with a Drew Brees interception – Brees' pass was tipped by linebacker Bruce Carter and intercepted by linebacker Justin Durant – to give Dallas possession at the Saints' 39-yard line.
On first down, Romo (22 of 29 for 262 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions) combined with running back Lance Dunbar on a 24-yard screen pass. On first down from the 15, Murray scored on a run around right end.
New Orleans was forced to punt again after a three-and-out, and Dallas finished off its first-half scoring with a nine-play, 77-yard touchdown drive that lasted 2:15 and gave the Cowboys a 24-0 lead they carried into halftime.
At halftime, Dallas had 290 yards on 37 plays; the Saints, 114 on 22. The Cowboys had 17 first downs at the break; New Orleans, seven.
"We're disappointed, and slightly embarrassed," linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "But at the same time, this is the first quarter of the season. We've still got a lot of season left.
"We've got to go get this game against Tampa (next Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome), get away from the bye and get on a roll. You can't jump in a hole and run away from 1-3. We've got to put more into the process and we'll get this thing corrected."
With specificity, Payton noted several areas that needed to be addressed.
"We're not getting it, and we're giving it," he said, referring to turnovers. The Saints have forced one turnover in the first 16 quarters of the season, and now have turned over the ball seven times.
"That's a recipe for a loss," Payton said. "We haven't been able to take it away and when it was all said and done, we were minus-3 in that category (against Dallas). The chances of winning a game like that are pretty slim.
"We've got to eliminate the things that keep you from winning. It starts with ball security, it starts with taking it away, third down (success on) both sides of the ball. We've got to be able to stop the run when we know they're running the football."
Said Lofton: "There's no way someone should run the ball on us like that."
The Saints mounted a bit of a comeback in the fourth quarter, when they scored both of their touchdowns to pull to within 31-17. Brees (32 of 44 for 340 yards and two touchdowns) threw scoring passes of 12 yards to Josh Hill and 13 to Jimmy Graham. That capped drives of 74 and 59 yards, which required a combined seven plays and 123 seconds.
"There was really no panic. With (9:49) left in the game, it was a two-possession game. We had our chances in the second half. We got beat. We got beat in every facet and that's the disappointing part," Brees said.
"(But) despite the 24-0 deficit coming out the second half, we still felt like this was something that was within our grasp. It was there for us to take."
The Saints forced a punt after pulling to within 31-17, but saw their next drive end on a failed fake punt on fourth down. Thomas Morstead was sacked at the New Orleans 39-yard line for a 2-yard loss on fourth-and-9, and the Cowboys ended the game's scoring on Romo's 18-yard touchdown pass to Dez Bryant six plays later.
It helped conclude an evening that was too bitter for the Saints to apply a sweetner.
"Starting with myself, we've got to be better," Payton said. "It's challenging, it's disappointing, it's frustrating. But that's on all of us now.
"We've got to make sure we look closely at the reasons why we're not winning."