Obscure Cowboys earn their stars

NEW ORLEANS -- Few people gave the Dallas Cowboys a chance against the New Orleans Saints.

Any chance. How could they?

This core group of Cowboys hadn't won a big game like this. Yes, they handed the Indianapolis Colts their first loss in Week 11 of the 2006 season. Sure, they beat the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field last season.

But winning a big game in December? Nope.

With baseball stats or made-up stats or whatever you want to call them, the Cowboys have been December failures with their 8-13 record the past five years.

Saturday night, the Cowboys knocked off the undefeated Saints 24-17 at the Superdome to end a two-game losing streak.

Not only was it a big December win, it also was a win the Cowboys needed to keep their playoff hopes alive. They walked out of here as if they owned the place.

Dallas won not because of its core group but because players such as Anthony Spencer, Kevin Ogletree, John Phillips, Mike Jenkins and Miles Austin contributed to the cause.

"We did the same thing we did all year," said Jenkins, a cornerback. "We didn't change up nothing for nobody; we didn't put nobody on a pedestal. We just came out and played ball."

In years past, the Jason Wittens, Bradie Jameses and Flozell Adams couldn't win a big game. They needed help.

They got it Saturday night.

There was Austin catching a 49-yard touchdown pass to set the tone in the first quarter. In the fourth, with his team trying to seal the game, he made a 32-yard reception. On the night, Austin had seven catches for 139 yards in recording his fifth game of more than 100 yards this season.

Phillips played instead of talented but inconsistent tight end Martellus Bennett, who was still suffering from postconcussion symptoms. He finished with three catches for 40 yards and bailed out quarterback Tony Romo by leaving his block and turning a short pass into a 23-yard reception in the fourth quarter. Phillips also made two first-down catches on the night.

Ogletree had two catches for 23 yards, the first one for a first down in which he kept his toes in bounds for a sideline catch. The other was a 6-yarder in the fourth quarter.

"For him to place those feet like he did and go up and catch that ball, that's presence," Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. "That's him. That's what he's about."

Jenkins picked off a Drew Brees pass headed toward the end zone and almost had another interception.

Spencer had two sacks and three quarterback hurries. His fumble recovery with six seconds to play sealed the victory.

Sometimes it's not the star players who help you win games; it's the lesser-known players who can decide things.

Next Sunday, the Cowboys will head to Landover, Md., to take on the Washington Redskins. Dallas hopes this new group of players can make an impact.

"You've still got to take the same mentality," safety Ken Hamlin said. "Any win is a big win, on the road, against a team like that, but if we have a letdown next week, then this win here doesn't mean nothing."

Calvin Watkins covers the Dallas Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.