NEW ORLEANS (CBSDFW.COM/AP) — It was a battle of defenses on Sunday night as the Dallas Cowboys offense was held in check in the 12-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints.

The Saints are surviving Drew Brees’ absence with effective defense and special teams, and making it clear that they won’t relinquish their status as NFC contenders — even if that means finding ways to win without the high-powered offense that has largely defined them since coach Sean Payton and Brees joined forces in 2006.

Vonn Bell’s forced fumble and two recoveries helped the Saints stifle a Dallas offense that had rolled through its first three games, and Wil Lutz kicked four field goals to lift New Orleans to the victory.

“It’s sweet when you get a victory like that, with that type of team, when they have that type of mentality, when they come in and try to out physical you,” said Saints middle linebacker Damario Davis, who the past two weeks has taken over Brees’ role in giving hype speeches to teammates during pre-game warmups. “When you know it’s going to be a dog fight, to be able to hit back and come out on top, that’s the type of win that feels real good.”

Dallas came in with the NFL’s third-ranked running attack, averaging 179 yards, and had scored no fewer than 31 points in a game. But the Cowboys met much more resistance in the raucous Superdome, where the Saints’ defensive front was bolstered by the return of tackle Sheldon Rankins from an Achilles tendon tear that had sidelined him since January.

Dallas managed just 45 yards on the ground.

“Hats off to the defense,” said Saints quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who improved to 2-0 as starter in place of Brees, who wore a black wrap on his surgically repaired right thumb. “In this league we know how hard it is to win football games and no one said it had to be pretty.”

Dak Prescott gave Dallas one last shot when he found Randall Cobb over the middle for 32 yards to the Cowboys 48 and spiked the ball with 2 seconds left. But his desperation heave was rushed by Gardner-Johnson’s blitz and Marcus Williams snagged New Orleans’ third forced turnover of the game.

Bridgewater went 23 of 30 for 193 yards. He was intercepted for the first time this season, albeit on an accurate pass that bounced off of Ted Ginn Jr.’s hands near midfield in the first quarter.

“I don’t care about the numbers,” Bridgewater said. “My job right now is just to help this team win football games.”

This victory was the first of the Payton era in which New Orleans didn’t score a touchdown and kept the Saints atop the NFC South.

Ezekiel Elliott scored the game’s only touchdown in the third quarter to give Dallas a 10-9 lead. But he finished with just 35 yards and his longest run was 6 yards. He was also stripped by Bell on a fourth-and-short run.

“They have first-round picks all across that defensive front. They’re a talented group and they did a good job moving up front and not allowing us to consistently run the ball,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “Obviously that’s a big part of what we want to do, and we weren’t able to sustain drives.”

Prescott finished 22 of 33 for 223 yards.

The Saints sustained their scoring drives with the help of receiver Michael Thomas, who had nine catches for 95 yards, and running back Alvin Kamara, who had 69 yards rushing and 20 yards receiving.

Lutz connected from 40, 42, 19 yards in the first half and 26 yards in the fourth quarter.

The Saints were in range of a field goal that could have put them ahead by five when blitzing Jaylon Smith sacked Bridgewater back at the 47-yard line, forcing New Orleans to punt with 1:45 to go.

Defensive tackle David Onyemata had the Saints’ only sack of Prescott on the first play of Dallas’ final drive. The Cowboys briefly recovered with a first down, but were pushed back on Amari Cooper’s offensive pass interference call with 30 seconds left.

The Cowboys are now 3-1 on the season and will look to bounce back against the Green Bay Packers at home next Sunday.

(© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)