Thursday night's setup should be familiar for Cowboys fans. Their heroes are in the midst of a mixed bag season. They're talented, but imperfect, getting ready to face one of the NFL's gatekeepers. A loss wouldn't destroy their season, and a win won't make it, but the result of the game will reveal the appropriate ambitions for this year's team.
Since falling to 3-5 after a Monday night loss to the Titans on Nov. 5, the Cowboys have won three straight, crawling back into a tie for the NFC East lead with the Redskins. The team's reward for its renewed competitiveness is a crossroads game with the NFL's best team, the 10-1 Saints, at home on national TV. Should they lose, they'll still have a slightly better than even chance to make the postseason, according to The New York Times' playoff-odds simulator. With a win, the Cowboys will have about an 80 percent chance to make the playoffs and force a reevaluation of what they are capable of in 2018.
Nine years ago, another five-loss Cowboys team was in a similar spot, getting ready to take on the then 13-0 Saints in prime time, on national television. The 2009 Cowboys were 7.5-point underdogs, according to the experts in the desert, same as the 2018 Cowboys. They featured a young quarterback desperate to prove himself on the big stage and an underrated defense, just like this year's team, too.
The 2009 Cowboys proved the pundits wrong that Dec. 19, riding a dominating performance from their defensive line — DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer and Marcus Spears combined for two forced fumbles and four sacks — and a big time-of-possession advantage to a 24-3 lead on the way to an easy 24-17 win.
This year's Cowboys have the pieces in place to follow a similar script. DeMarcus Lawrence has emerged as a game-winning force on the defensive line and is surrounded by talented players looking to pick up the scraps available when he inevitably gets double- or triple-teamed. The Hot Boyz, as the defensive line has taken to calling itself, and the rest of the Cowboys defense can't stop Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas — no one in the NFL can. If they play with the energy they've shown over the past month, however, they are capable of creating chaos and turnovers, something teams have struggled to do against New Orleans this season.
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On the other side of the ball, trading for the Raiders' Amari Cooper a month ago has revived the Cowboys' passing game just enough, allowing Ezekiel Elliott and the team's run-blockers to reassert themselves as one of the NFL's best ground games. If most things go right for the offense, it can protect the ball and control the clock, giving the Cowboys a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter.
If they beat the Saints, or even stay within a touchdown of them tonight, the Cowboys will have a blueprint for winning in January, assuming they hang on and make the playoffs. While the NFL has become an offense- — and especially passing- — dominated league, teams like the Saints, Rams and Chiefs are vulnerable against defenses that create havoc and offenses that are slow to give the ball back. Dominant offenses can't control games if they don't have the ball
A blowout loss — which remains a distinct possibility — leaves the Cowboys with a couple of things — a must-win game against the Eagles in 10 days and the knowledge that they are on a suicide mission that ends, at best, with a divisional round capitulation in New Orleans or Los Angeles.