On Sunday Night Football, a tale of two teams seemingly headed in opposite directions, and both confounding expectations.

On the one side, the New Orleans Saints, an assumed Super Bowl contender, one of the top 3 teams in the NFC, en route to a 1-3 record courtesy of its weakest performance yet.  On the other, the Dallas Cowboys, hit with the “rebuilding” tag thanks to a defense that was historically bad in 2013 and now featured a variety of unknown (and thought to be fill in) players.

But as the NFL season enters its quarter-turn, not everything has played out as expected, and there are few bigger surprises than the Saints’ struggles and the Cowboys’ successes.  Are these merely blips on the early radar or real trends that portent the rest of the season.

In the Saints’ case, there are real causes for concern.  First and foremost, the Saints’ defense, which was significantly improved last year, and which got an infusion of talent in the offseason, has underperformed miserably.  They are bottom third overall and bottom five against the pass, giving up nearly 300 yards per game.  Worst of all, they’ve put up those numbers against opponents that include the Cleveland Browns and the Minnesota Vikings without Adrian Peterson.  Uh-oh.

But the Saints’ troubles extend beyond just not being able to shut people down.  Their offense is moving the ball, but isn’t scoring.  Drew Brees’ numbers this season are more or less on a part with his last three outstanding seasons except for one category:  touchdowns.  And the most telling stat of all was not seeing the Saints lose to the Cowboys in Dallas, it was seeing the Saints get shut out in the first half by a Dallas defense that once upon a time was God-awful.  By the time New Orleans got into the endzone, the game was over and their 1-3 start was cemented.

This is Josh Hill.  He’s basically the only player on the Saints who has MORE touchdowns than you’d think.


The one light at the end of the tunnel?  The NFC South, which last season was arguably the 2nd or 3rd toughest division in football, is NOT that this year.  Atlanta can only win at home.  Carolina, a team fueled by its defense, has given up 75 points in the last two weeks.  Tampa Bay is, well, Tampa Bay.  The Saints, at 1-3, are only 1 game behind in the South.  So they can turn their season around enough to make the playoffs.  But to go all the way?  They’ll need to do a complete 180 for anyone to be too worried about them at this point.

And how ‘bout those Cowboys?  Are they really on an upward trajectory?  Well, sort of.  First off, although their defense is better than expected, keep in mind that two of their three wins were against Tennessee and St. Louis, and the Rams lit them up for 31 points.  So the defense, while not epically bad like last year, is not great either (in fact, they are one spot ahead of the Saints’ D against the pass).  But keep in mind, right now Dallas’ defense is statistically ahead of teams like the Packers and the Eagles, and no one says those guys are doomed.

And on offense, the real difference appears to be a mindset.  The Cowboys are running this year.  They fortified their o-line in the offseason and now they are handing the ball to DeMarco Murray and letting him run all over people.  Tony Romo is throwing less, but, aided by improved protection and defenses that are a bit punch drunk from getting run on, he’s been quite effective.   Don’t underestimate how keeping opposing offenses off the field has helped the fledgling Dallas defense either.  Demoralizing an opponent with an effective ground game remains a great way to play football, regardless of how pass-happy the league has become.

DeMarco scoring DeTouchdown for DeCowboys


Of course, it’s early.

Dallas’ problems in November and December are legendary, and when the heat of the playoff race reaches critical mass, most people will be expecting Romo and the Cowboys to fold.

That may or may not be fair, but until they show that they can make it over the long haul, it’s the way they’ll be perceived.