Part of the reason the New Orleans Saints (10-1) have been locked in during their 10-game winning streak? For the sixth time in their last eight games, they'll be facing an opponent that either leads its division on that day, or is in second place. The two teams that didn't fall into that category, Philadelphia and Atlanta, were the defending Super Bowl champs and a NFC South Division rival, which pretty much assured full attention on those dates, too.
So there'll be no mental dips for New Orleans, despite the fact that the Saints will be playing their third game in 12 days, and fourth in 19. They've played their best football during the three-game sprint, beating opponents by an average score of 43-13, and they've been up to the task in prime time, which will be the setting on Thursday night against the Cowboys (6-5) in AT&T Stadium in Dallas.
Here are a few things the Saints will need to do well in order to stretch their winning streak to 11:
- No team in the NFL has been better against the run than the Saints. As much as the league-low 73.2 rushing yards per game they allow headlines the numbers, they also hold opponents to just 3.6 yards per carry. Linebackers Demario Davis, A.J. Klein, Alex Anzalone and their teammates will need their "A" games against Dallas. Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott leads the league in rushing – 1,074 yards, with six touchdowns on 217 carries – and he has been on a roll during Dallas' three-game winning streak, with 394 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 68 carries. The Saints like to make teams one-dimensional; this may be their toughest test yet.
- Don't think that the Saints' offensive line doesn't know that their counterparts in Dallas have been considered the league's best unit for the previous two or three seasons. And don't think that the Saints' offensive line doesn't believe it's in the conversation for that title – if it isn't the clear-cut leader – this season. It has played that way, which helps explain why New Orleans is on a record-setting offensive pace (37.2 points per game, three points per game higher than the franchise single-season record). If left tackle Jermon Bushrod, left guard Andrus Peat, center Max Unger, right guard Larry Warford and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk are among the stars of the game for the Saints, that only will mean good things. The Saints have run for 151 yards per game, and 17 touchdowns, in the last nine games. Talented running backs, plus a dominating offensive line, can yield those kinds of numbers.
- So, if the Cowboys (93.6 rushing yards allowed, 3.7 yards per carry) are able to slow down Alvin Kamara (150 carries, 706 yards, 11 touchdowns) and Mark Ingram (90-440-4) with linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, then that will put the ball in Drew Brees' hands. The Saints will take that. Brees has completed 76.4 percent of his passes for 3,135 yards and 29 touchdowns, with two interceptions. Dallas has 31 sacks, led by DeMarcus Lawrence's 8.5; Brees has been sacked 10 times. Somehow, at 39, he's playing better than he ever has.
- This is how good Amari Cooper is: He joined the Cowboys at the trade deadline and in four games, he leads Dallas in receiving touchdowns (three) and is third in receiving yards (349). The Saints have two cornerbacks, Marshon Lattimore and Eli Apple, they don't mind putting in man-to-man coverage, so their work against Cooper will be worth watching. Also, regarding Dallas' passing attack, keep this in mind: Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott has been sacked 38 times this season. Yes, he's mobile, but obviously he also is sack-able. New Orleans is coming off a six-pack sack game against Atlanta and has 13 in the last three games. Cam Jordan (eight sacks) and Sheldon Rankins (seven) give the Saints a formidable end-tackle combo on defense that teams are having a hard time blocking, and if rookie Marcus Davenport (four sacks) is back up to speed, Dallas' offensive line vs. Saints' defensive line could be fun to watch.