OPINION: As their offense sputters, the Saints' unbeaten season is no more

NEW ORLEANS — Well, it was fun while it lasted.

The New Orleans Saints’ Magical Mystery Tour came crashing down on Saturday night in the Louisiana Superdome, under the heat of the Dallas Cowboys’ relentless pass rush and, no doubt, the weight of compounding expectations.

It was a crossroads moment for the Saints, and this time, it was too much for them to handle.

Dallas 24, New Orleans 17.

The Saints’ defense had some issues of its own, too, but it was the struggles of the Saints’ offense that caught us by surprise. The Cowboys (9-5) were a step ahead of the Saints at nearly every turn, at least until Nick Folk plunked the right upright on a try at a 24-yard field goal try, giving the Saints new life just before the two-minute warning.

Drew Brees and his homeboys on the Saints’ offense kept plugging away, but they never found a rhythm against DeMarcus Ware, Keith Brooking and the rest of the Cowboys’ defense.

The Saints are now 13-1 on the season, and the good news is that their final two games in the regular season come against NFC South punching bags, next Sunday’s home game with Tampa Bay (1-12) and the road trip to wrap things up on Jan. 3 against the Carolina Panthers (5-8) in Charlotte, N.C.

The bad news?

The Cowboys may have provided the rest of the league a blueprint on how to derail the Saints’ potent offense, and the injuries in the Saints’ secondary seem to have finally caught up with first-year defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ resourceful bunch.

Brees was sacked four times in this game, including the play that put the Saints away once and for all. DeMarcus Ware, coming back from a neck injury in last week’s 20-17 loss to San Diego, sacked Brees from behind and forced a fumble, after the Saints reached the Dallas 42-yard line, and Jay Ratliff made the recovery for the Cowboys to put the issue to rest.

“Unfortunately, we couldn’t get into any kind of rhythm, early in the game,” Brees said. “We were down 14-0 early and only ran six plays on offense before then. We didn’t do our defense any favors, falling behind so quickly.

“They’ve got a good defense, and they deserve a lot of credit.”

The Saints converted just one of seven third-down plays. The Cowboys controlled the ball for more than 36 minutes, and they punctured the Saints’ defense with 145 yards on the ground, perhaps half on that yardage on simple draw plays when Williams’ defense was caught out of position.

Romo played a strong game, to be sure, but the Saints were clearly not at their best on this night, and the Superdome crowd that was ready to tear the roof off the sucker filed out of the stadium wondering why the Saints fell behind so quickly and waited so long to do something about it.

The truth of it is, Dallas was the better team, at least over these 60 minutes.

“We hung in there defensively in the second half, and came up with some big stops,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.

But the Cowboys still led 24-3 after three quarters, and by then, only a total collapse would doom the dudes in blue-and-metallic-silver duds, the guys from Big D, the guys who no doubt will be in the market for a placekicker in the next few days, after Folk’s shank job, his sixth miss in his last six games, giving Brees and the Saints’ offense one last shot.

“We felt like there was no doubt,” Brees said, “that we were going to drive it down the field and send it into overtime … (But) we’re 13-1 and we still have that first seed in the NFC playoffs in our sights.”

As they say in these parts, true dat. But the rest of the NFC, particularly the Cowboys, Eagles and most of all, Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings, are gaining on them.

Jim Mashek/The Sun Herald (MCT)