IRVING, Texas (AP) Bill Parcells used to teasingly refer to Sean Payton as "Dennis the Menace." There's no telling what Parcells might call his former assistant now.
Payton outsmarted his old boss early, then had some fun at his expense with an onside kick later, once the New Orleans Saints were well on their way to a 42-17 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night.
Having spent the last three years on Parcells' staff, Payton knew exactly how to attack the Cowboys, and Drew Brees pulled it off perfectly, tying his career high with 5 touchdown passes, all before the 3rd quarter ended. New Orleans finally showed mercy in the 4th period, even taking a knee from inside the 5 well before the 2-minute warning.
Brees finished 26-38 for 384 yards, all without throwing a pass in the 4th quarter.
The Saints (9-4) grabbed sole possession of the second-best record in the NFC, putting them in position for a luxury the franchise has never enjoyed: a first-round playoff bye. That's getting a little ahead of things considering New Orleans hasn't won the division yet, but the rookie coach has guided his club to a two-game lead with three games left.
Parcells absorbed most of this one with his lips pinched and his arms crossed. Not even Tony Romo could save the Tuna from this embarrassment.
"That was a pretty good licking," said Parcells, who shared a quick handshake with Payton at game's end. "I can't think of anything we did very well."
The loss was especially painful for Parcells because the Cowboys (8-5) had won their last four games and five of six, playing so well that on Monday he spoke to them about what it takes to win a championship. Plus, with Seattle losing earlier in the afternoon, Dallas went out knowing the No. 2 seed was there for the taking.
A four-play stand by the defense, then a 77-yard touchdown run by Julius Jones on the Cowboys' second snap proved to be a tease. Neither unit looked that good again until the game was a rout.
A defense that hadn't allowed more than 22 points in any of the last six games gave up 21 points in the 2nd quarter, then another 21 in the 3rd.
Romo, who credits Payton for polishing his game, was 4-11 for 44 yards with an interception and a sack at halftime, and didn't get much better, falling to 5-2 as a starter.
He finished 16-33 for 249 yards, with a touchdown and 2 interceptions. The touchdown was a 34-yarder to Terrell Owens that should've been intercepted, but bounced through a defender's hands and into T.O.'s tummy.
Brees, meanwhile, picked up where he left off in his last game at Texas Stadium, a championship victory for his Austin high school in 1996.
A lot of his success came from great play-calling by Payton, such as a reverse on 4th & 1 from the Dallas 39, and making fullback Mike Karney a weapon near the goal line.
After never reaching the end zone in his 43-game career, Karney scored New Orleans' first 2 touchdowns on a 2-yard run and a 3-yard catch.
Then Jamal Jones, who had only 2 catches in his 10-game, two-year career, caught a 27-yard touchdown pass in the final minute of the 1st half.
On the play before, Jones was ruled to have caught a pass for a 1st down at the Dallas 22. The ball came out at the end and Parcells thought it was an incompletion, so he threw his challenge flag. However, it was in the final 2 minutes, when all challenges come from the booth. So he was hit with a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Payton was more successful in his use of the red hanky, getting an out-of-bounds call on Karney turned into yet another touchdown for the burly back. It wasn't as pretty as a dazzling 61-yard catch and run by Reggie Bush earlier in the 3rd quarter, but it proved to be more of a turning point because of what happened next.
With the Saints up 35-17, former Cowboys kicker Billy Cundiff dribbled the kickoff and New Orleans recovered. A few plays later, Brees threw a 42-yard touchdown pass to Devery Henderson.
Cowboys fans headed for the exits when the 3rd quarter ended, it was already 10 p.m., after all, leaving the seats to the gold-and-black clad Saints fans. And there were plenty of them, as heard every time "Dooooo-ce" McAllister got the ball, or when "Reg-gie!" Bush did something exciting.
And that happened a lot.
"Whatever they did," Parcells said, "they did well."