Saints, Cowboys both battling inconsistency

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The New Orleans Saints have been wrestling with a bout of inconsistency lately.

The Dallas Cowboys can relate.

As they head into an eagerly anticipated matchup tonight, the Saints (6-2) and Cowboys (5-4) have little margin for error

if they want to maintain tenuous perches atop their divisions.

New Orleans is coming off a 26-20 loss to the New York Jets that marked the Saints’ second setback in three games, allowing

their closest pursuer in the NFC South, the Carolina Panthers, to pull with one game.

“If we were able to put together a (late) drive and win that Jets game we would be sitting here 7-1 and saying we feel pretty

good,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “We just didn’t get the job done. That part is disappointing. And then you kind

of look at the stretch ahead and it doesn’t get easier. It is going to be extremely tough. It is almost like a new season

begins.”

The Cowboys stumbled to three losses in their first five games, but have won three of their past four — good enough to give

Dallas a one-game lead over Philadelphia in the NFC East.

Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo’s 2,553 yards passing through Week 9 ranks third in the NFC, and his chemistry with receiver

Dez Bryant appears fine, regardless of any passionate exchanges they’ve had recently. Bryant is tied for third in the NFL

in touchdowns receiving with eight.

However, Dallas’ defense ranks 31st

against the pass, never good recipe for slowing down a record-setter

like Brees. In addition,

the Saints are unbeaten in the Superdome. Then there’s the subplot

of Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan going against

the club that fired him last season.

“It is going to be a tough scheme we are going against, a tough place to play, a tough offense on the other side,” Romo said.

“But that is what makes the game great.”

Five Things To Watch For

Ryan’s Revenge

When Rob Ryan was fired by Dallas,

Saints coach Sean Payton quickly took him off the market, hoping he

could restore credibility

to a New Orleans defense that yielded an NFL record 7,042 yards in

2012. This season, the Saints ranked ninth in yards allowed

through last weekend, on pace to give up about 107 fewer yards per

game. Saints defensive players say Ryan hasn’t said much

about his desire to deal his old employer a loss, not that they

would blame him if he did.

Run Aground

Both the Cowboys and Saints have

struggled running the ball lately. New Orleans gained 41 yards on the

ground last weekend

and ranks 26th in rushing. The Cowboys ran the ball a

franchise-low nine times for 36 yards in last week’s win over Minnesota,

even though DeMarco Murray returned after missing two games with a

left knee injury. Dallas coach Jason Garrett and New Orleans

coach Sean Payton both said this week that their teams need to run

the ball more often.

Dome Advantage

The Saints have won 13 straight in the

Superdome with Sean Payton in the building. They went 9-0 in the 2011

season, including

playoffs. Payton was suspended in connection with the NFL’s bounty

probe for 2012, when the Saints went 4-4 at home. New Orleans

has yet to lose in four home games this season. In addition, the

Saints have won 11 straight in the dome at night, including

playoffs. The last time New Orleans lost a night game in the dome

was Dec. 19, 2009. The team that beat them was none other

than Dallas.

Air Raid

Dallas is already the first

team in NFL history to allow four opposing QBs to pass for 400-plus

yards in the same

season. Brees is a good candidate to become the fifth. He has 10

career 400-yard games, all since joining the Saints in 2006.

D-Line Shuffle

Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Ware

returned to practice this week after missing three games with a right

thigh injury. Now

starting defensive tackle Jason Hatcher has a neck injury

hindering him. Fellow tackle Nick Hayden has a rib injury. The Cowboys

have made 20 moves involving defensive linemen since final roster

cuts in August.