The New Orleans Saints and Dallas Cowboys have experienced life without their star players, and the results appear in the loss column. The Saints hope their wait for Drew Brees, and a win, are over.
Brees hopes to return and deliver the Saints their first victory Sunday night against the visiting Cowboys, who continue on without Tony Romo and Dez Bryant.
Both teams lost without their star quarterbacks last week, New Orleans dropping to 0-3 with a 27-22 loss at Carolina and Dallas suffering its first defeat by falling on the short end of a 39-28 home shootout against Atlanta.
The light at the end of the tunnel is near for the Saints, though, as Brees resumed throwing at practice this week. He missed the first start of his NFL career with a bruised rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder suffered during a 26-19 loss to Tampa Bay in Week 2.
Coach Sean Payton says Brees has ''done well'' with his rehabilitation and his availability will be based on his performance at practice.
The Saints could use him as they are already buried in the NFC South behind unbeatens Carolina and Atlanta.
''It's certainly a hole. There is no way to sugarcoat that,'' Payton said. ''We can't go play this game quick enough and because, listen, there is that sense of urgency to get a win.''
Backup Luke McCown wasn't the problem against the Panthers, finishing 31 for 38 for 310 yards with an interception. The Saints held a 16-10 advantage early in the third quarter before Carolina scored 17 straight.
McCown is 2-8 as a starter since his rookie 2004 season.
''For his first start, I thought Luke did a really good job,'' Payton said. ''But our margin of error isn't that good to overcome.''
The Cowboys (2-1) have lost eight of their last 10 against New Orleans, though they won last year's September meeting in Dallas handily, 38-17.
Sunday's game will feature a few different faces for Dallas. The Cowboys are without Romo until at least Week 11 after they placed him on the injured list with a designation to return. Romo broke his left collarbone during a 20-10 win over Philadelphia in Week 2, adding to the sting of Bryant's broken foot in the opener.
Dallas' immediate future now falls with backup Brandon Weeden and a receiving corps that hasn't produced much in Bryant's absence. Weeden has lost nine straight starts dating to December of 2012, and he has thrown more interceptions (29) than touchdowns (27) for his career.
Weeden looked poised to help the Cowboys move to 3-0 last week, holding a 28-17 halftime lead over Atlanta behind three Joseph Randle rushing touchdowns. But the Falcons scored all 22 second-half points, pulling Dallas back to earth.
Weeden completed 22 of 26 for 232 yards with an interception.
The Cowboys haven't stretched the field much, and Weeden's only down-field pass last week resulted in a defensive penalty. Dallas ranks toward the bottom of the NFL with 10.31 yards per completion and an average yards at catch of 4.2. The Cowboys have just three passing plays of 25-plus yards.
The Saints rank toward the bottom of the NFL with seven passing plays of 25 or more yards allowed.
"We've got vertical plays called," Weeden told the Cowboys' official website. "But if (the defenders) bail out, there's huge voids in the zone underneath. I felt like I was efficient as far as that goes."
Dallas ranks toward the top of the league with 826 passing yards, but only 322 of them have gone to wide receivers, including the 48 yards Bryant registered before his injury. The passing game is led by running back Lance Dunbar's 21 catches for 215 yards, while tight end Jason Witten has 21 receptions for 181 yards.
Terrance Williams has manned the top receiving slot in Bryant's absence. He dropped his only two targets last week but continued to back Weeden.
"He didn't try to force the ball down the field," Williams said. "There were some times (to get the ball outside), but it's my job to be ready, no matter if it's toward the end of the game or the first. There's no excuses for dropping passes."
The Saints traded defensive tackle Akiem Hicks to New England in exchange for tight end Michael Hoomanawanui on Wednesday. Hicks has been a starter since 2013 but had his playing time trimmed recently by Payton.