Despite his waning powers, Drew Brees' absence will be keenly felt on Sunday night as two of the NFC's biggest contenders clash, writes Mark Kirwan....
"Brees is already injured this season, but slated to return. For now, former Viking Teddy Bridgewater has stepped in. He had a tough time of it coming in against the Rams, but worryingly, after a week's practice and planning, the back-up didn't look much better against the Seahawks last Sunday."
Dallas Cowboys @ New Orleans Saints
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Saints bridging the gap
Did New Orleans' Super Bowl window slam shut with Nickell Robey-Coleman's early hit on Tommylee Lewis in the 2019 NFC title game?
If it did it's because their 40-year-old quarterback Drew Brees has passed his tipping point. While the career span of players at the NFL's most crucial position has been extended by greater protection from the rules and advances in sports science, not everyone can be Tom Brady.
Brees is already injured this season, but slated to return. For now, former Viking Teddy Bridgewater has stepped in. He had a tough time of it coming in against the Rams, but worryingly, after a week's practice and planning, the back-up didn't look much better against the Seahawks last Sunday.
A slim 177 yards and two touchdown passes is not a great return considering Andy Dalton shredded Seattle's secondary in the same stadium two weeks earlier. Alvin Kamara, the defence and the special teams unit came through to win that game.
Really, while Brees is out for the next month or so, it's on the back of Kamara that the offence will live and die.
He had 161 all-purpose yards and two scores last week, and he'll likely have to put up a similar stat-line if the Saints are to win on Sunday night, and if the Cowboys don't have to respect Bridgewater's threat downfield, there'll be little room for the running back to work in.
More Moore, more!
The Cowboys were the last team to beat the Saints before the Rams debacle in the NFC Championship showdown last season. Their 13-10 triumph was a surprise at the time, the Saints offence having looked unstoppable in the preceding months, but Rod Marinelli's defence limited Kamara to 36 yards on the ground, Brees passed for under 140 yards and just one TD, while Ezekiel Elliott caught a crucial TD pass to steal a win from a New Orleans team that had won ten straight games.
A lot has changed in Dallas since then. Jason Garrett's still the head coach, but Scott Linehan has been replaced at Offensive Coordinator by former Cowboys QB Kellen Moore, and his updating of their offensive approach has turned Dak Prescott into an early-season MVP candidate.
He's been helped by having better weapons too. Amari Cooper was already in Dallas when the teams met last season, but he's had a full offseason to develop greater chemistry with his quarterback. Michael Gallup has flashed his ability, but injury has intervened now, meaning former Packer Randall Cobb and, yes, straight from the ESPN commentary box, Jason Witten is contributing in the passing game again.
Zeke Elliott is still there too, allowing Moore to roll out a more play-action and run-pass-option heavy scheme that has befuddled defences so far. They've exceeded 30 points in all three games so far this season, though, admittedly, the Giants, Redskins and Dolphins haven't been the sternest tests.
The biggest thing they have going for them, though, is getting the band back together along the offensive line, with Zack Martin, Travis Fredericks and Tyron Smith all healthy and playing, and La'el Collins looking as good as ever. It means they can dominate teams like they used to a couple of years back, and that should scare the rest of the league.
Dallas are a legitimate Super Bowl contender this year if they stay healthy.
This should've been the first real test for Dallas this season, but Bridgewater starting means they're getting the Saints at less than full strength.
While some might be impressed seeing Teddy B lead them to a win at Seattle last week, the Saints won in spite of his performance. A return TD and a fumble recovery for a score accounted for 14 of their 33 points and skewed the game so that Bridgewater was never truly under pressure to make a play.
Which was fortunate for the Saints, because they were 3-for-11 converting on third down and had 11 fewer first downs than the Seahawks. Take away the defence and special teams TDs and Seattle would've won the game comfortably.
New Orleans won't be able to count on breaks this week against a much better team than Seattle. Dallas' defence may be a little rusty given they faced three very weak opponents so far, but we know what Jaylon Smtih, Leighton Vander Esch, DeMarcus Lawrence and co can do, and they probably won't need to be at their best to contain Bridgewater. Alvin Kamara alone cannot beat Dallas. I'll take the road favourite Cowboys -2.5 happily in this spot at [1.9].
The total is a tougher call at 47.5. Michael Gallup's absence is a real disappointment and takes away a big weapon for the Cowboys, but their heavy scoring this season so far does encourage. Also, the Saints defence, as is their usual style, haven't started the season all that well, so the Cowboys should fancy their chances of push 30 again.
The question is how much we trust the Saints offence now? I'd be inclined to think they can be contained, just like they were last season with Brees, by Dallas. That means that, even if Dallas meet expectations, 47.5 could be too high still, so the under is the better play at [1.92].
On touchdown scorers, Bridgewater really cuts down the market a lot. Kamara is the obvious choice on the Saints side, at about 11/2 to score first, and his opposite number for the Cowboys, Ezekiel Elliott, is shorter still at 9/2.
The safest selection is probably the latter in the any time market at 4/6, and you can combine Dallas -2.5, Under 47.5 Total Points and Ezekiel Elliot First TD on the Sportsbook into a Same Game Multi worth 15/1 if you'd like to spice it up.
Personally, I prefer a juicier pick on TD scorers, and they don't come much more mouth-watering than New Orleans' kick returner Deonte Harris. He ripped off a score early last week and while 100/1 to repeat the trick this week is probably asking too much, he's also available at 25/1 to score any time in the game.
New Orleans' offence will be limited, they'll need other parts of the team to contribute again, and Harris earned the returning gig in preseason thanks to another score and a few big returns. There's no reason he can't add a third return touchdown in his last six games.
1.5pt on Dallas -2.5 on the Handicap market @ [1.9] on the Exchange
1pt on Under 47.5 on the Total Points market @ [1.92] on the Exchange
0.25pt on a Same Game Multi of Dallas -2.5, Under 47.5 Total Points, and Elliott First TD Scorer @ 15/1 on the Sportsbook
0.25pt on Deonte Harris Any Time Touchdown Scorer @ 25/1 on the Sportsbook
0.1pt on Deonte Harris First Touchdown Scorer @ 100/1 on the Sportsbook