Two would-be NFC contenders collide on the Week 4 edition of Sunday Night Football when the Dallas Cowboys play host to the New Orleans Saints.
The hosts tout two wins but are without Dez Bryant for an extended period of time and quarterback Tony Romo until at least Week 11. It showed on the field last week in a 39-28 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
For the visitors, an 0-3 hole is second in concern only to the health of quarterback Drew Brees, who missed last week's 27-22 loss to the Carolina Panthers.
Health and records aside, the NFC-wide implications of this affair aren't hard to figure out. Here's a look at everything to know about the contest.
When: Sunday, October 4, 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, Louisiana
Live Stream: NFL Game Pass
Betting Lines (via Odds Shark)
- Over/Under: 48
- Spread: New Orleans (-3)
Team Injury Reports
Injury reports from ESPN.com.
Attacking the Weaknesses
With Romo under center, Dallas' pass-happy ways looked sound in wins against the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles.
Without him, Brandon Weeden couldn't stretch Atlanta's defense in a vertical enough manner to pull off an upset, although it was a game that would have been a struggle no matter who lined up under center.
Still, Weeden was efficient with a 22-of-26 mark for 232 yards and a pick. The problem was simple: Weeden targeted running back Lance Dunbar a team-high 10 times, followed by tight end Jason Witten eight times.
"We've got vertical plays called," Weeden said, per ESPN.com. "But if (the defenders) bail out, there's huge voids in the zone underneath. I felt like I was efficient as far as that goes."
If the New Orleans offense comes to life Sunday night, hitting only what the defense gives Weeden underneath might cause problems.
That said, the New Orleans defense figures to give Weeden some room to work. The unit allowed Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie Jameis Winston to throw for 207 yards and a score on 21 attempts in Week 2 before Carolina's Cam Newton threw for 315 and two touchdowns.
If Joseph Randle can run like he did last weekend (14 carries, 87 yards, three scores), Weeden might have an easier task. Regardless, it figures to be a tall task for the offense on the road.
Riding the Urgency
Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, it's panic time for the Saints.
Not only are Brees and Co. winless, both the Panthers and Falcons continue to pull away from the rest of the NFC South with their 3-0 marks.
"It's certainly a hole. There is no way to sugarcoat that," coach Sean Payton said, per ESPN.com. "We can't go play this game quick enough and because, listen, there is that sense of urgency to get a win."
Speaking of Brees, though, it does sound like he will give it a go Sunday night, per ESPN's Ed Werder:
It's a great sign considering the Saints had to watch backup Luke McCown do the same thing as Weeden last week, going 31-of-38 but totaling 310 yards and a pick.
The problem is simple: Brees might not be 100 percent, but he's putting himself out there regardless because the black hole known as 0-4 has stolen many a season. The matchup doesn't appear the easiest, either, not after the Dallas defense held Eli Manning and Sam Bradford in check before Matt Ryan threw the ball 36 times in Week 3 and rode Devonta Freeman (three touchdowns) to a win.
In fact, the last time Brees suited up, he threw it 38 times but managed just 6.7 yards per attempt while suffering four sacks in a loss to Tampa Bay. His ground game managed just 3.9 yards per carry.
Urgency is perhaps the best motivator of all in the NFL. Whether it can propel the Saints through injury and fundamental issues is a question worthy of answering on the national spotlight.
New Orleans playing at home just isn't the advantage it used to be.
Weeden vs. Brees sounds like a mismatch, but given the circumstances, the Cowboys seem at an advantage given the team's ability to still play NFC contenders well, whereas the Saints defense has allowed a minimum of 26 points per game.
With Randle running well and Weeden pushing the ball deeper down the field, the Cowboys will be able to make the few big plays necessary to escape with a win. Even if Brees is 100 percent healthy, it doesn't seem like he or Payton has figured out how to best operate this new-look offense without Jimmy Graham.
Look for the Cowboys to convert a late kick for the win.
Prediction: Cowboys 17, Saints 14
Statistics courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.