The circumstances were ripe for the New Orleans Saints 10-game winning streak to end.
They were playing a very hot team in the Dallas Cowboys, who had won three in a row and were getting better each week.
They were playing on the road.
They had been performing in rarified air that is difficult to maintain for weeks and months.
They were due for a performance that didn’t measure up to their recent lofty standards.
But more than anything else their 13-10 loss to the Cowboys in AT&T Stadium on Thursday night was the result of a superb game from Dallas (7-5).
The Cowboys defensive line significantly out-performed the New Orleans line, which had been one of the elite units in the NFL this season,
They stymied the Saints running game and pressured Drew Brees into a poor performance.
Their cornerbacks blanketed the Saints wide receivers, who had a series of drops on the rare occasions that they had opportunities to make plays.
New Orleans (10-2) finished with a mere 176 yards. That’s the fewest since coach Sean Payton and Brees came along in 2006. In fact it’s the fewest since the final game of the 2001 season.
The Cowboys offense didn’t roll up eye-popping stats, but it still had a significant hand in the victory.
Dak Prescott was efficient, Ezekiel Elliott helped keep the chains moving with plays in the passing and rushing game and they kept the ball away from Brees and the Saints offense.
A big part of New Orleans’ 10-game winning streak was its ability to play complementary football. A big factor in the end of the streak was the Cowboys’ ability to play complementary football.
Their offense scored just enough points and just as importantly kept Brees on the sideline for nearly 37 minutes and maintained a field possession advantage throughout.
Their defense contained Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram II and knocked Brees off his game for the first time this season. They focused on Michael Thomas and dared Tre’ Quan Smith, Keith Kirkwood and other to make them pay for it. They couldn’t.
The Saints were sloppy along the way. Brees started the game 0 for 4 for the first time.
Thomas talked Payton into challenging an early incompletion that was a poor cost-benefit choice that failed.
That became magnified later in the half when Payton challenged an incompletion call on a pass to tight end Dan Arnold in the red zone. The challenge was successful but also was a Pyrrhic victory. It left Payton without another challenge for more than half the game. The yardage gained on the overturned call went to waste when the Saints were stopped on fourth and goal from 2.
The decision to go for the touchdown was fine. The Saints were 11 of 12 on fourth down coming in, but the play call was a failure.
Even the field-position aspect of the decision failed to reap any dividends because the Cowboys drove to a field goal.
The lack of challenges became hurtful in the third quarter when the officials ruled that Cole Beasley got a first down on a third-down pass completion. Replays showed he was clearly short of the first and it almost certainly would have been overturned had Payton had another challenge.
But he didn’t.
The Saints were just out of sync from the opening kickoff until through the final horn.
For the first time in more than two months, the Saints played poorly. The Cowboys played very well, nearly as well as they’re probably capable of playing.
New Orleans is still as good a team as there is in the NFL right now.
But Dallas was the better team Thursday night.