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IRVING, Texas – 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."
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