Saints vs. Cowboys: Banged-Up Defense Will Prevent Dallas' Playoff Success

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistDecember 23, 2012

Dec 23, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan reacts on the sidelines after the fumble was confirmed in overtime against the New Orleans Saints at Cowboys Stadium. The Saints beat the Cowboys 34-31 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Tony Romo's words came fantastically close to being prophetic. He spoke to the media at the Dallas Cowboys' practice facility Wednesday and boasted about his team's ability to outplay opponents in the game's most important moments.

"I believe when I step on the field in the fourth quarter, if we're within 10-14 points, we're going to find a way to win the ballgame," Romo said.

With the Cowboys' season in peril, Romo stepped on the field facing a 14-point deficit with only 285 seconds to play Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. But he only needed 270 of those seconds to lead his team down the field on two separate touchdown drives, forcing overtime.

But the 'Boys couldn't finish this one off, and for that we can blame the depleted defense, which let Drew Brees and the Saints walk all over them for four-plus quarters at Cowboys Stadium. The final defensive effort—in overtime—was almost laughable. 

Cowboys fans will whine about the controversial call that gave the Saints 22 extra yards on an advanced fumble that should have been an incomplete pass, setting up the game-clinching field goal. But Dallas didn't deserve to win this game for letting it come down to that in the first place.

Like all good soldiers, the Cowboys will tell you that injuries can't be used an excuse here, but we all know that this D has been ravaged so thoroughly by broken bones and torn ligaments that Rob Ryan's shorthanded unit is the reason why the Cowboys might now need help to win the division and make the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

Darren Sproles is a great player, but he simply wouldn't have put together 152 yards from scrimmage on only 16 touches against a front seven with guys like Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Jay Ratliff, Kenyon Coleman and Josh Brent. 

With Orlando Scandrick or Barry Church in the secondary and Morris Claiborne fully healthy and those aforementioned missing pieces in the lineup, does Jimmy Graham get hilariously open on the Saints' first play from scrimmage in overtime? And does Pierre Thomas turn a two-yard loss into a seven-yard gain on the very next play? 

Not likely and most definitely not.

Dallas' D let the Saints convert 11 third downs, controlling the ball for 65 percent of the game. They failed to sack Drew Brees or record a single turnover. The red-hot Anthony Spencer and his All-Galaxy peer, DeMarcus Ware, have saved this defense in weeks past, but they couldn't do enough to conceal the blemishes that Brees and Co. were able to expose in Week 16.

It's a shame, too, because Romo has never looked this confident, poised and determined. He's playing arguably the best football of his career and he's being supported by a back-from-the-dead offensive line, a top-of-the-line running back (DeMarco Murray) and the league's hottest receiver not named Calvin (Dez Bryant). 

By no means is the Cowboys' season over. Depending on what happens to the Giants, they could still control their own destiny in the season finale against Washington. With Romo and Murray and Bryant and Witten, anything's possible. But I no longer trust this defense, and I don't believe the Cowboys do either.