Top to bottom, end to end and all points in between, the New Orleans Saints put on another show for the nation on Sunday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
More, they likely put on their best show of the season in a 49-17 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in which even the final scoreboard might not emphatically enough have stated the totality of New Orleans' seventh, and most complete, victory of the season.
There was no facet of Sunday's game in which the Saints (7-2) didn't overwhelm Dallas, as they created a wave of momentum in front of 73,018 fans and dominated the Cowboys (5-5) as if playing a different game in a different speed on a different field.
In matching last season's win total, the Saints piled up an NFL-record 40 first downs and a franchise regular-season record 625 yards. According to the website database Pro Football Reference, they became the first team since 1960 (and perhaps the first ever) with at least 230 rushing yards and 380 passing yards in the same game.
Running back Mark Ingram ran for a career-high 145 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries, and quarterback Drew Brees had the 23rd four-touchdown passing game of his career, second all-time to Peyton Manning's 26.
Meanwhile, defensively, the Saints didn't allow a third-down conversion (Dallas was 0 for 9), held the Cowboys to 193 yards (fewest by the Saints since they held the Giants to 142 in 2006) and limited Dallas to nine first downs. In comparison, the Saints converted nine of their 12 third-down attempts.
"I would say it was (the team's most complete game this season)," said Brees, who completed 34 of 41 passes for 392 yards, wasn't intercepted and finished with a passer rating of 139.0. "Defensively, it was outstanding.
"Any time you can hold an opposing offense to 0 for 9 on third down, that's going to win you just about every game. I think just that complementary football element we talk about having was very present."
The victory kept the Saints one game ahead of Carolina in the NFC South standings, with San Francisco poised to visit the Superdome on Sunday for a 3:25 p.m. kickoff. And it extended the Saints' mastery of prime time.
New Orleans is 7-1 on Sunday night since Coach Sean Payton was hired in 2006, including five straight wins at home. The Saints also are 11-2 on Monday night during the Payton era.
This season the Saints have been unbeatable at home. They're now 5-0 in the Superdome, with the wins coming by an average score of 35-15. And they've shown the ability to rage back after a defeat – they've beaten their two opponents by an average score of 42-17 after losses this season.
But Sunday was the gold standard of a season that has seven games remaining.
"We won in a lot of the areas we talked about all week long," Payton said. "You don't get the chance to play in games like this that often.
"The team we played was banged up. I thought, overall, we were really good on third down, defensively and offensively. We did a good job with ball security. We stayed ahead of the chains and steered the balance offensively, and our ability to get to a lot of the third downs were shorter distances, so it was a good win for us."
Dallas actually led twice, sandwiching a 37-yard field goal by Dan Bailey and a 7-yard DeMarco Murray touchdown run around Brees' 22-yard touchdown pass to Marques Colston.
But the floodgates opened in the final 14:05 of the quarter, with the Saints scoring three touchdowns to take a 28-10 halftime lead.
The first drive – 15 plays, 80 yards – lasted 8:56 and culminated with a 1-yard pass from Brees to Pierre Thomas. After the defense forced a three-and-out, the offense produced a nine-play, 52-yard drive that lasted 2:29, ended on Darren Sproles' 3-yard run and bumped the score to 21-10 with 1:32 left.
And after Dallas again was forced into a three-and-out and burned just 37 seconds off the clock, New Orleans hit the Cowboys with a six-play, 75-yard drive that ended on a magnificently timed, 28-yard screen pass from Brees to Sproles.
That score, with five seconds left in the half, proved to be more than enough, though the Saints closed out the game by outscoring the Cowboys 21-7 in the second half.
"It was a real tough game for us," Dallas tight end Jason Witten said. "You have to give them credit (for) outplaying us and kicking our tails real good."
The victory was a satisfying bounce-back game for the Saints, who, in a 26-20 road loss to the Jets, allowed 198 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns. Sunday, Murray was Dallas' run offense and he ran 16 times for 89 yards, 67 on six carries during Dallas' first-half touchdown drive.
The Saints, who sought balance after running just 13 times for 41 yards against the Jets while attempting to pass 55 times, got exactly that. Their 242 rushing yards were the most the team has had under Payton.
"All you can do is go out and work hard and hope to see dividends on the field," right tackle Zach Strief said.
The payoff Sunday was big. It was the best, most complete payoff the Saints have had this season.
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