Take a look back at the Dallas Cowboys of one month ago: 4-4 record, a dumb loss to the Redskins, an unproven new QB, a coach who looked ready to pack it in, a loud-mouthed receiver who had the drops, a two-game deficit to the Giants. Nothing seemed to be going right for the Boys.
My, my how things have changed. And it's much more than the four-game winning streak and the two-game lead in the Eastern Division that they now sit atop. It's Bill Parcells look, smirk and all; it's how he's delighting in the success of his new QB Tony Romo all the while managing expectations. It's Terrell Owens shutting up a bit, dropping a few less and fitting in (as with all TO judgments, this one is permanently temporary). It's a neat melding of two running backs--Marion Barber and Julius Jones--into a successful pairing. It's big play guys on defense in Roy Williams and DeMarcus Ware.
And Sunday night it's a genuine big game against another surprising NFC Division leader, the New Orleans Saints.
Across the field Parcells finds his former top assistant and longtime aide, Sean Payton coaching the stunning Saints. Here's a team, also 8-4, that has so greatly over-exceeded expectations it's hard to measure. Injuries to the wide receivers haven't stopped them, a somewhat bumpy adjustment for the wondrous Reggie Bush hasn't stopped them, the loss of their starting tight end hasn't stopped them, and the attention lamp focused squarely on them hasn't affected them.
All those years the Cowboys loudly proclaimed themselves America's Team we didn't buy in. And now many give the Saints that title. But then we see the astonishing TV rating numbers for the Cowboys-Giants last Sunday and you think the Nation is just waiting for the Cowboys to do something interesting again. (Some 30 million are said to have watched the last few minutes of the Cowboys victory, a remarkable number.) Clearly this is a game the Nation wants to see.
To get ready for the first NFC match in forever that is truly worth the attention, we took a listen to a Parcells media session this week. He was playful, seemed relaxed, toyed with the media, lifted up his QB and let him down all in the same answer. He bobbed and weaved around the questions of his coming game against Payton, all of this a reminder to longtime Parcells watchers that December is his time and so it is again.
For the Saints, we declared back in August (along with many, many others) that we had become Saints fans as they returned to their battered city and the rebuilt Dome. Unfortunately seeing our new team has been almost impossible and let us all say it's about time the networks and the NFL got them back on our TV screens.
How far can the Saints go? How much will they be hurt by the injuries and uncertainty of their top wideouts, vet Joe Horn and amazing rookie Marques Colston? And how much will this week's suspension of DT Hollis Thomas--for a steroid violation he says is a result of his asthma medicine--impact the team? Is QB Drew Brees the League MVP or is it a running back in San Diego? And who could have thought way back when that we would actually care so much about what was happening with the Saints in the 14th week?
Whoever wins is looking at a playoff spot and an opening round bye; whoever loses is still in first place. But following game after game of outstanding AFC matchups, there's one from column B to care about, too. And we have just two words more to say: Go Saints!