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NEW ORLEANS – 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 on Sunday night, 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."
Here are five things watch for when Dallas plays at New Orleans on Sunday night:
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 eight straight in the dome at night. 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.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org