By Shawn Lealos

Heading into the fourth week of the 2014 NFL season, the Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints seem to be headed in different directions. Cowboys fans headed into the new season hearing about how horrible their defense would be this year and have watched the unit play much better than expected. Optimism is the catch phrase around Dallas.

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New Orleans came into the season expecting their defense to continue to improve and most fans expected them to contend for the NFC South crown. After two games, the Saints are 1-2, already notching a division loss to the Atlanta Falcons, and even losing to the lowly Cleveland Browns. Panic is starting to set in for New Orleans Saints fans.

Drew Brees

The key to victory for the New Orleans Saints, as usual, is quarterback Drew Brees. The prolific passer has always seemed to put up spectacular numbers with the most lackluster of receiver corps, a true product of the Saints system and one of the smartest quarterbacks in the NFL. However, Brees is off to a slow start in 2014. Over the first three games of the season, he has thrown for 863 yards with only five touchdowns and two interceptions. However, two of those touchdowns came against the weak Minnesota Vikings defense in week three.

The biggest problem for Brees is the fact that his big play wide receivers have been noticeably absent this season. Marquis Colston was actually held without a catch in week two, and he only has seven receptions for 135 yards through the first three games. Fellow starter Kenny Stills has only seven receptions for 63 yards and hasn’t found the end zone yet. The Saints receivers need to step up in order to help the Saints offense start moving the ball like they are used to.

Jimmy Graham

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The one area where the New Orleans Saints are not having trouble is at tight end. Jimmy Graham, who plays mostly as a wide receiver even though the NFL and Saints refuse to acknowledge him as one, leads the team with 24 receptions for 254 yards and two touchdowns. Despite the Saints refusing to pay him like a receiver, he has 31 targets on the season, which is 18 more than the team’s main starting receiver in Colston.

Graham will be the biggest Saints weapon and is why, regardless of record or optimism, they should be favored over the Dallas Cowboys. In week one, San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis had four receptions for 44 yards and two touchdowns. Against the Tennessee Titans, tight end Delaine Walker had 10 receptions for 142 yards and one touchdown. St. Louis Rams tight end Jared Cook was the leading receiver in week three with seven receptions for 75 yards. Jimmy Graham is going to have a huge game.

Rob Ryan’s Defense

When the New Orleans Saints beat the Dallas Cowboys in 2013, Rob Ryan’s defense limited the Cowboys to under 200 yards in the 49-17 blowout. It was a huge win for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who Dallas fired after the 2012 season for absolutely no reason. The Saints, who ranked last in the NFL in 2012, finished Ryan’s first season as the defensive coordinator ranked fourth in total defense.

In 2014, the Saints have crashed back to earth and head into week four ranked 25th in the NFL in total defense. However, they are ranked ninth against the run, which has been the Dallas Cowboys’ bread and butter this season. DeMarco Murray is averaging 128 yards a game on the year while the Saints have given up an average of only 101 yards per game on the ground. One side will have to break this week, and whoever wins this battle will likely control the clock and have the best chance to win the game.

For more Cowboys news and updates, visit Cowboys Central.

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Shawn S. Lealos is a freelance writer who graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 2000 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism. He writes for a variety of national publications and has over 15 years of sports journalism experience. Follow Shawn on Twitter @sslealos. Examiner.com.