The Cowboys can’t keep up with Saints’ offense, but here’s how they could have a chance Thursday

FRISCO -- Cowboys owner Jerry Jones keeps mentioning that a Super Bowl-level effort will be required by his team Thursday night against the 10-1 New Orleans Saints. Amid the buildup, Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott heard so much about the opponent and its offensive dominance that he finally uttered the ol' "they put on their pants the same way we do" line.

The Cowboys (6-5) obviously want and expect Prescott to exude his usual confidence, which is currently backed by a three-game winning streak.

But it's undeniable that Dallas' offense, and few around the NFL, stack up against the Saints'. New Orleans leads the league in scoring (37.2 points per game) and ranks fifth in total offense. It features a strong running game to go with quarterback Drew Brees, who has looked much like the league MVP at 39 and in his 18th season.

The Cowboys, who have reached the 37-point mark only once this season, will have to continue their recent improvement on third-down conversions and time of possession while maintaining aggressiveness. That, along with perhaps a great performance from their defense, gives them at least a shot at ending New Orleans' 10-game winning streak.

In other words: No shootout allowed.

"When you're playing these kinds of games, you can't be scoreboard watching," Dallas offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. "You've just got to keep playing ... and know we've got to have a great game on offense to beat their defense. Don't get into the mode of what the other side's doing. Our guys will play great over there [on defense]. We have our job to do on offense."

When that job's going well, though, it usually results in Dallas winning the time-of-possession battle, thanks to the run-first approach behind running back Ezekiel Elliott. On Thursday, it won't hurt that it could keep Brees and Co. off the field at AT&T Stadium. The Cowboys had the edge in time of possession in only two of their first eight games. They've controlled the ball in each win of the current streak and are 5-0 when having the edge.

"I feel like that's a staple of when we play our best," Linehan said. "It's certainly going to be a stat to keep an eye on."

Saints coach Sean Payton said the Cowboys over the last three games have "really looked noticeably different."

The Cowboys have been able to control the ball longer because the running game is back on track, aided by offensive line adjustments and the addition of receiver Amari Cooper to occupy defenses. Oh, and Elliott has been relentless. The league's top rusher has 86 touches, 531 total yards and four touchdowns during the winning streak. That includes 394 yards rushing.

"If you think about it, all the great players, they're volume players," running backs coach Gary Brown said. "The more volume they get, the better they become. ... With his style, he seems to get better and better and better. That's what we're seeing right now."

The Saints rank first in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing 73.2 yards per game, and haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher this season. Even Los Angeles Rams star Todd Gurley was held to 68 yards rushing.

The Cowboys have been able to extend drives because they've been markedly better on third down over the last three games. They converted 33.3 percent of their third downs through their first eight games. They've converted 49 percent over the last three.

Cooper, with his sharp route running and ability to create separation, has picked up a first down on 19 of 22 catches in the four games since the Cowboys traded for him. His seven first-down catches on third down over that stretch are tied for the most in the league.

Linehan noted that Cooper will likely get more attention from the Saints on third down because of his success.

Dallas could also well have to play a second straight game without All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith, who has yet to practice this week as he continues to deal with a neck stinger.

The Cowboys will certainly have to be effective inside the 20, where they've scored touchdowns on six of 10 possessions during the winning streak. They've had eight goal-to-go situations during that span and scored TDs on only half of them.

Dallas would certainly take some explosive plays, too, a la Cooper's 40- and 90-yard catch-and-runs for touchdowns in the Thanksgiving Day win over Washington.

Jones may be on to something. "Each play, we've got to think it's the Super Bowl play," he said on his radio show Tuesday on "The Fan" KRLD-FM (105.3). "It's really going to take that kind of focus to beat a team like this."

The Cowboys can't become the Saints on offense, so the unit needs to be the best version of itself.

"We've just got to simply play our game," Prescott said. "We trust in our defense, our scheme and everything that we have. So if we go in there and handle our business, we feel good about it."

Hairopoulas, DMN

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