Saints visit Cowboys with quieter Payton talk

IRVING, Texas (AP) — The New Orleans Saints visit Cowboys Stadium for the first time Sunday, just a few miles from the home where

suspended coach Sean Payton waits to return from a yearlong ban with a voided contract that sparked speculation about him

replacing Jason Garrett in Dallas.

If these teams had played in early November, there wouldn’t have been anything else worth discussing. The Cowboys changed

that by winning five of six games to regain control of their playoff hopes, and the Saints aren’t totally done yet.

“Our mindset around here is that we

always control our own destiny,” Garrett said. “We put ourselves in a

position right now

that everything we want is still in front of us. But we’re still

focused on the task at hand and that is the New Orleans Saints.”

Garrett dodged a few questions Wednesday about those November days when the Cowboys were 3-5 and a report surfaced that the

league had scrapped Payton’s contract because it objected to an out clause in the deal.

The buzz, while ignoring the obvious

New Orleans reaction that it intended simply to re-sign Payton, was

grounded in logic:

If Payton’s a free agent, then why wouldn’t he want to return to a

place where he was a highly regarded assistant and restore

America’s Team to greatness?

The week that story hit, the Cowboys started winning again, which is why most of the questions for Garrett in the days leading

the Saints game have been about football. Like, how about that three-game winning streak?

“I ignored it all,” Dallas offensive lineman Mackenzy Bernadeau said of the Payton talk. “I don’t think anybody was concerned

about it, worried about it. We just focused on playing the next game.”

The Cowboys had to focus on a whole new set of priorities after practice squad linebacker Jerry Brown died Dec. 8 in a one-car

accident that led to intoxication manslaughter charges against teammate and close friend Josh Brent.

Suddenly, Dallas was trying to figure

out how to just get through a game that kicked off in Cincinnati less

than 24 hours

after the players found out Brown was dead. The Cowboys won 20-19

on a field goal by Dan Bailey as time expired, and Bailey

ended the game on a kick again a week later in a 27-24 overtime

win against Pittsburgh.

By finding ways to win, the Cowboys (8-6) are tied for first in the NFC East and will take the division if they beat the Saints

and win their finale at Washington.

“I can only imagine what the

organization has been through and certainly the team,” Saints

quarterback Drew Brees said. “I

guess you can do one of two things. It can cause you to kind of go

backward or it can motivate you to move forward and kind

of honor the memory of the person that you lost.”

The Saints (6-8) probably didn’t figure

to have even slight playoff hopes when an 0-4 start followed a

tumultuous offseason

that included a yearlong suspension for linebacker Jonathan Vilma

and shorter bans for other current and former players. Vilma

appealed and remained eligible to play, although he missed the

first five games with a knee injury.

Vilma returned during a stretch of five wins in six games that got New Orleans to .500, but another three-game skid left the

Saints with remote playoff hopes. New Orleans bounced back again last weekend, though, getting the team’s first shutout in

17 years out of the NFL’s worst defense in a 41-0 win over Tampa Bay.

“I’m never going to make excuses,”

Brees said. “We took the hand that we were dealt and we tried to make

the most of it. I

think we learned a lot along the way, we learned a lot about

ourselves. Unfortunately, we didn’t meet our level of expectations

on a few occasions.”

Both teams lean on their quarterbacks —

and have rough losses to show for it. Brees had five interceptions

without a touchdown

in a 23-13 loss to Atlanta three weeks ago that made the playoff

path much tougher. Tony Romo’s problem was early in the season,

when he had five interceptions against Chicago and four more

against the New York Giants during Dallas’ 3-5 start.

Here’s what happens when their stars

don’t make mistakes, though. Brees threw for four touchdowns without an

interception

in last week’s blowout, and Romo has 12 touchdowns and three picks

during the Cowboys’ current 5-1 stretch. Dez Bryant has

been a big part of Romo’s recent roll, catching touchdowns in a

career-best six straight games in his first 1,000-yard season.

“You keep plugging and stay aggressive

and you know that things are going to turn for the positive,” said

Brees, whose 18

interceptions are four off his career high. “Hopefully they’ll

continue to turn for the positive this game and our last game

and hopefully we’ve got something after that. Even though the

chances are slim, we’re going to fight like heck to make the

most out of it.”

Brees figures Payton will be watching on TV from Westlake, the Dallas suburb where he has a home. And Brees believes Payton

will be watching his future team: the Saints. He never bought into the Payton-to-Dallas talk because he’s always believed

the coach he shares a Super Bowl trophy with wants to win another one in New Orleans.

“He’s always with us,” Brees said, “even though we haven’t been able to talk and communicate with him.”