ARLINGTON, Texas — Jimmy Graham watched as Marques Colston hauled in a pass from Drew Brees in overtime and readied himself to celebrate with his teammate for putting the Saints in range for the game-winning points Sunday against Dallas.
Instead, a bizarre sequence of events changed who was doing the celebrating
Graham fell on a Colston fumble at the Dallas 2-yard line, setting up Garrett Hartley for the game-winning 20-yard field goal that put the Saints on top 34-31.
“He saved my butt,” Colston said.
“It was definitely a special moment for me, especially after the ups and downs in the game,” Graham said. “To help this team win on the road here in Dallas here in this stadium is definitely special.”
And now the Saints are just one game from .500 with the curtain closer coming next.
New Orleans (7-8) is in this position only because the defense, after allowing two touchdowns in the final four minutes of regulation, stopped the Cowboys (8-7) on initial series of overtime.
“As soon as they got the ball, the defense stood up and was like, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get a stop. Either a turnover or a three-and-out.’ Everyone believed that we could do that,” middle linebacker Curtis Lofton said.
The Saints won’t have an opportunity to do better than .500, though. Minnesota’s win over Houston officially knocked New Orleans out of the playoffs. For the first time since 2008, New Orleans won’t see postseason football.
Not that those wearing black and gold care at this point.
“Regardless of what our playoff options are, it’s all about playing our best football in December going into what we always hope will be the playoffs,” said quarterback Drew Brees, who finished the day with 446 yards and three touchdowns passing. “Regardless of how that shakes out, we understand that we built a foundation for our teams in the future.”
A week after pasting Tampa Bay, the Saints won in a different manner against Dallas.
The offense rolled up 562 total yards, including 116 on the ground, the team’s fourth consecutive game and fifth in the past six hitting the century mark.
Colston had 153 yards on 10 catches while Darren Sproles added 177 all-purpose yards
New Orleans was big on third downs, going 11 of 19, helping the Saints own a nearly 2-to-1 advantage in offensive snaps.
The Saints defense, meanwhile, did what it had to do, holding the Cowboys to just 2 of 10 on third down and just 40 yards rushing. Tony Romo was 26 of 43 for 416 yards and four touchdowns, two of the scores and 224 of the yards going to Dez Bryant.
“I think it’s about winning and losing,” Romo said when asked about his good day. “You do everything in your power to help your football team to do the things that it takes to win. When you don’t, you’ll use the experiences to do better but as far as standing up here and feeling good? It doesn’t (feel good). When you lose in the NFL, especially when you play this position, it’s just a very empty feeling.”
New Orleans won the toss and got right to work. A 15-yard completion from Brees to Colston on third-and-seven ignited the offense, leading to a 10-play, 80-yard scoring drive capped by a nine-yard touchdown run by Mark Ingram. The Saints had a 7-0 lead.
By the end of the first quarter, the Saints had outgained Dallas 154-25 and held the ball for nearly nine more minutes than the Cowboys.
None of that mattered 2½ minutes into the second quarter. Garrett Hartley’s 36-yard field goal attempt was pushed right. Three plays later, Romo found Dez Bryant behind cornerback Patrick Robinson for a 58-yard game-tying touchdown.
On the very next possession, Bryant caught his second consecutive 58-yard touchdown pass, again in front of Robinson, who stumbled in coverage. With 5:43 to go in the first half, Dallas had flipped the game and owned a 14-7 lead.
“I feel terrible, to be honest,” Robinson said. “I think I let my teammates down. But that is part of the game. Just gotta try to forget about it.”
The Saints answered, though they picked up help to do it. On fourth-and-one at the Dallas 23, Colston’s catch was ruled incomplete when he didn’t maintain it to the ground. But Anthony Spencer was offside, giving New Orleans a first down. Three players later, Brees hit Lance Moore for a 6-yard touchdown, tying the game at 14-14 with just 1:11 to go in the half.
Hartley’s 37-yarder as the second quarter came to a close gave New Orleans a 17-14 halftime lead.
Dan Bailey’s 47-yard field goal tied the game on the opening drive of the third quarter.
Special teams, namely punter Thomas Morstead, changed the game. His 54-yard punt was downed at the 3-yard line. On the first Dallas play, linebacker Curtis Lofton forced, then recovered, a fumble by DeMarco Murray and New Orleans had first-and-goal at the 5.
Brees’ 5-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Thomas put the Saints on top 24-17 soon thereafter. New Orleans extended its lead to 31-17 on a 3-yard touchdown pass to David Thomas.
But that only set up the frenetic final five minutes of the fourth quarter.
Romo hit Dwayne Harris for a 16-yard touchdown with 3:35 to play, capping a five-play, 80-yard drive. Then, with 15 seconds left, he hit Miles Austin for the game-tying 19-yard score in front of Johnny Patrick, in the game because a concussion Jabari Greer had suffered earlier.
“We weren’t able to make the right adjustments in time and they kind of caught us in a bad defense, a bad matchup,” Saints defensive end Will Smith said. “And then they kind of picked on us. That kind of hurt us.”