The Dallas Cowboys will take on the New Orleans Saints tonight at 8:30 p.m. at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana, in what is shaping up to be a crucial game for both teams. The Cowboys come into the matchup with a 2-1 record, which is good for first place in the NFC East division. The Saints have an 0-3 record and must win if they want to keep alive their already slim chances at making the playoffs in the tough NFC South division.
With Cowboys star quarterback Tony Romo and wide receiver Dez Bryant still injured, the boys will look to backup quarterback Brandon Weeden and wide receivers Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley to pick up the slack. The always-reliable tight end Jason Witten will also act as a security blanket for Weeden in the passing game. After missing the previous game, Saints quarterback Drew Brees will return to an offense that has been sputtering so far this season. After trading tight end Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks in the offseason, the Saints have not been able to get things going in the passing game. Here are the five most important players for tonight's matchup.
1. Drew Brees (Saints)
At 36-years-old, many fans and analysts are wondering if this is the year that Saints quarterback Drew Brees finally begins to decline. In the first two games of the season, Brees still threw for a total of 610 yards, but this only amounted to two touchdowns and two interceptions. While there are concerns over his recent shoulder injury, Brees assures us he is healthy and good to go. In an interview with Ed Werder of ESPN, Brees also believes he can still make every throw.
"Basically what the doctor told me was the cuff muscles at times will just shut down if they're inflamed. They're basically telling the body, 'I'm injured. I need time to heal, I'm not going to work until the inflammation goes away.' It wasn't a pain thing. I mean, it hurt, but that wasn't the issue. It was just functionality. I did strength exercises all last week. The tough part was with the balance between resting it, getting the inflammation out of it and, at the same time, strengthening it."At this point, it appears Brees' threshold for pain is the only thing that may hold him back. If he can get in a rhythm and find wide receivers Brandin Cooks and Marques Colston, it is going to be a long day for the Cowboys secondary.
2. Mark Ingram (Saints)
While running back Mark Ingram has been solid for the Saints so far this year, he has not yet had a huge breakout game. He is averaging a below average 3.3 yards per carry and has only found the end zone twice. The good news is that Ingram appears to be much more involved in the Saints passing game. Last year, Ingram had a total of 145 yards receiving in 13 games. In three games this year, he already has 152 yards receiving. If Ingram can get it going rushing the football, in addition to continuing to be a receiving threat, the rest of the Saints offense is going to open up.
3. Brandin Cooks (Saints)
Many analysts expected Brandin Cooks to have his breakout season this year and become at least a top 15 wide receiver. With Brees struggling and missing a game, Cooks has posted a pedestrian 16 receptions, 190 yards, and no touchdowns in three games. Last week, Julio Jones torched the Cowboys secondary for 164 yards receiving and two touchdowns. If Brees and Cooks can get on the same page, it will be very difficult for the shaky Cowboys secondary to stop the blazing fast wide receiver.
4. Brandon Weeden (Cowboys)
According to NFL, Cowboys backup quarterback Brandon Weeden has thrown only two passes of more than 15 yards so far in 2015. He is also averaging an astounding low 4.8 yards per pass attempt. If the Cowboys expect to win this game, Weeden is going to have to consistently push the ball down the field. While Weeden has not been a successful quarterback over his four-year career, he does have the physical skills to throw the ball down the field. Look for Weeden to at least attempt a few long passes to Terrance Williams to keep the defense honest.
5. Joseph Randle (Cowboys)
After running back Demarco Murray signed with the Philadelphia Eagles in the offseason, many fans and analysts wondered how good the Cowboys offensive line really was. While he got off to a fairly slow start in his first two games, Randle had a coming out party in the third game of the season against the Atlanta Falcons. He rushed for 87 yards and three touchdowns on only 14 carries. In order to take pressure off of Brandon Weeden, Joseph Randle is going to have to be productive again.
While the Saints were unbeatable in previous years on their home field, they have struggled recently. If the Saints manage to get an early lead, look for the Saints home crowd to make things extremely difficult for the Dallas Cowboys with their noise. In the end, Vegas believes the Saints have a three-point advantage in this matchup. If Brees, Ingram, and Cooks get going, look for the New Orleans Saints to get their first win of the season.
[Images via Ronald Martinez/Getty Images]