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Cowboys vs. Saints: Biggest X-Factors in Sunday Night Showdown

Jimmy Graham (left) and Darren Sproles are fighting recent injuries ahead of Sunday's game against the Cowboys.
Jimmy Graham (left) and Darren Sproles are fighting recent injuries ahead of Sunday's game against the Cowboys.Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Matt FitzgeraldCorrespondent IIIDecember 16, 2016

Week 10's Sunday night football prime-time showcase pits the Dallas Cowboys against the hosting New Orleans Saints in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

America's Team leads the NFC East, while the Saints are atop the conference's South Division. Both hold only a one-game advantage, though, which makes this an especially intriguing matchup that will alter the playoff picture.

Although there are surefire stars, headlined by the quarterbacks in New Orleans' Drew Brees and counterpart Tony Romo, there are several X-factors who are bound to have a massive impact on this game too. One of the biggest playmakers is Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, but he's questionable to go, per the team's final injury report.

Let's take a closer look at what his health means, along with a few other players who should be prominent figures in determining the outcome of this showdown.

 

DeMarcus Ware, DE, Dallas Cowboys

SAN DIEGO, CA - SEPTEMBER 29:  Defensive end DeMarcus Ware #94 of the Dallas Cowboys looks on prior to the start of the game against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium on September 29, 2013 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Ima
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

The team's official website lists Ware as probable for Sunday's contest, which would mark the first time the superstar has been in action since Week 6.

Ware is a terror coming off the edge, which is just what the Cowboys could use facing such a dynamic passing attack in New Orleans.

Brees is coming off of a loss and will be eager to put on a display in front of the home fans to keep the Saints on top of the South. The only chance the Cowboys defense has of foiling those plans is putting some heat on the superstar signal-caller and keeping him out of his rhythm.

It's much easier said than done, but Ware at least gives Dallas a puncher's chance at accomplishing that while dropping into Monte Kiffin's Cover 2.

Especially with Morris Claiborne out again for Week 10, the Cowboys are susceptible to big plays down the field, even with big Saints receiver Marques Colston questionable.

 

Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints

NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 27:  Jimmy Graham #80 of the New Orleans Saints walks off the field after defeating the Buffalo Bills 35-17 at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on October 27, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

New Orleans can function without Colston in the passing game—Brees proved that last week by throwing for 382 yards against the New York Jets. What may make life difficult is the subtraction of Graham.

The third-year tight end can make plays even when he's not open thanks to his leaping ability and athleticism, and he's been succeeding despite a painful foot injury.

Now, Graham has to battle through an ailing elbow, as noted in the previously cited injury report.

If Colston is unable to go again, that makes it critical for Graham to be in the lineup. As amazing as Brees is, he still needs his complementary targets to throw to. Otherwise, this could be a far closer game than the Saints would have bargained for.

Of Brees' 21 touchdown tosses, 10 have gone to Graham, who is as reliable of a red-zone receiver as any in the NFL.

 

DeMarco Murray, RB, Dallas Cowboys

ARLINGTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 22:  Running back DeMarco Murray #29 of the Dallas Cowboys carries the ball during the game against the St. Louis Rams at AT&T Stadium on September 22, 2013 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The good news: Murray averaged just under eight yards per carry last week. The bad news: He only got four carries and thus gained only 31 yards.

The lack of balance between the number of runs and passes is not a good sign. It is a deviation from the plan for offensive coordinator Bill Callahan, who put the onus on Romo to win in come-from-behind fashion over the Minnesota Vikings.

Michael Fabiano of NFL.com was perplexed, as were many:

Dallas had just nine carries as a team in Week 9, and that trend can't continue if the Cowboys are meant to have a chance at pulling the upset in New Orleans. Murray is a dynamic back when given the opportunities, and the Saints have the 25th-ranked rush defense.

Callahan has to at least make a better attempt to get Murray going and try to keep the ball away from Brees and co.—despite the plethora of weapons in Dallas' own passing game.

 

Darren Sproles, RB, New Orleans Saints

NEW ORLEANS, LA - SEPTEMBER 30:  Running back Darren Sproles #43 of the New Orleans Saints celebrates after Sproles scores on a five-yard run in the first quarter against the Miami Dolphins at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on September 30, 2013 in New Orlea
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

What should push the Saints over the top in this one—with or without Graham—is the return of Sproles from a concussion he sustained in Week 9.

Sproles' impact is undeniable, particularly with regard to how Brees performs with him on the gridiron, as ESPN Stats & Info highlights:

With excellent receiving ability out of the backfield and amazing lateral quickness, Sproles creates matchup nightmares, which is what makes Sean Payton's genius offense operate so smoothly on such a consistent basis.

It seems rather soon for Sproles to return after having such a scary setback as a concussion, but if he is indeed 100 percent—or as close as NFL players can be at this point in the season—New Orleans' already positive offensive outlook improves.

That's bad news for Dallas fans, who should be on the edges of their seats as it is in seeing their team travel to take on a rather viable Super Bowl contender.

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