ARLINGTON, Texas -- As Roy Williams ran toward the end zone, he realized the importance of his breakaway catch-and-run. Just hold onto it, he thought, and the Dallas Cowboys would pull off one of their greatest Thanksgiving comebacks. He even switched the ball from one hand to another to make sure he kept it from the defender in front of him.
The guy behind him changed everything.
Malcolm Jenkins snatched the ball from Williams at the 11, ripping it out so forcefully that it wound up against his own stomach. Drew Brees then quickly drove 89 yards for the touchdown that put New Orleans back ahead with 1:55 left Thursday.
But the drama wasn't done yet in the Saints' 30-27 victory.
Having already overcome a pair of 17-point deficits, the Cowboys moved close enough for David Buehler to try a 59-yard field goal that would've tied it. His kick had plenty of leg, but fluttered just wide to the left with 25 seconds left. New Orleans coach Sean Payton started to call a timeout, which would've given Buehler another chance, but either Payton didn't finish the gesture or the officials didn't see it, so the play stood, and this wild, wacky, thriller was finished.
"The play that Malcolm Jenkins makes late is an effort play, a heart play and it's one of those plays that really inspires everyone on the team," Payton said. "It was a gut-check win."
And a gut-wrenching loss for Dallas.
The Cowboys came in 2-0 under interim coach Jason Garrett, playing like the Super Bowl contenders they were supposed to be instead of the 1-7 cupcakes they turned into under coach Wade Phillips. They made plenty of Phillips-era mistakes to fall behind 17-0 in the first quarter and 20-3 before halftime, then showed the poise and toughness Garrett has instilled by fighting back.
Buehler kicked a 53-yard field goal as the first half ended, Miles Austin went 60 yards on an end-around on the second play of the second half and Dallas was back in the game. The Cowboys went ahead 27-23 on Tashard Choice's 1-yard touchdown run with 5:51 left, then Williams caught a short pass and took it 47 yards, following a block from Miles Austin as he approached the end zone.
Williams switched the ball from one hand to another to avoid cornerback Tracy Porter, knowing the Cowboys could stretch the lead, kill some clock or both as long as he didn't fumble. Then, Jenkins grabbed it.
"I lost the ballgame," Williams said. "I let my teammates down. I need to fall down. We run the clock down and win the game. I was trying to make a play and they did a good job. It's late in the game. That's the nail in the coffin. We had the momentum going our way. We were there. That was a W. I get tackled, we get in the end zone and we win. I fall down and we win."
Jenkins said he chased the play with only one thought -- "get the ball out."
"He didn't see me from the blind side," Jenkins said. "A bad play turned good for us. Not only ripped it out, it just kind of fell in my stomach."
The Saints (8-3) won their fourth straight and fifth in six games. This was their first time playing on the holiday, and it's certainly one their fans will never forget -- especially the tens of thousands who were among the crowd of 93,985 at Cowboys Stadium. They made their presence felt, and would love to return the first weekend in February to watch New Orleans try defending its Super Bowl title.
Dallas (3-8) lost for the first time in three games since Garrett became interim coach. This plucky effort shows the impact he's had in such a short time. But if things had gone only slightly different, he would've been the face of two of the greatest Thanksgiving rallies in club history. In 1994, he made a rare start in place of an injured Troy Aikman and took the Cowboys from a 17-3 deficit against Brett Favre and the Packers to a 42-31 victory.
Instead, this game may go down with Leon Lett's snowy gaffe in 1993 as one that got away.
"I think we demonstrated again what we've done the last few weeks -- battle and fight," Garrett said. "There were a lot of things to be proud of. Guys played with a lot of passion, energy and enthusiasm. ... But you've got to get the bottom line right. We didn't get it done."
Brees took the Saints 80 yards in four plays on the game's opening drive, never even seeing a second down. After defensive lineman Will Smith intercepted a screen, Garrett Hartley kicked a career-best, 50-yard field goal, then Brees led another scoring drive. Chris Ivory ran 3 yards for the first touchdown, 6 yards for the second.
Brees finished 23-of-39 for 352 yards with the winning touchdown and an interception that almost cost New Orleans the game. The ball bounced off the hands of tight end Jimmy Graham and into the hands of Dallas safety Gerald Sensabaugh, leading to Choice's go-ahead score.
Reggie Bush also would've been a goat had New Orleans lost.
After missing eight games with a broken leg, Bush let the first pass thrown his way clang off his shoulder pads and helmet. He later dropped a likely touchdown pass while leading 20-13, then fumbled on a punt return to set up the Cowboys' touchdown got them to 23-20. Saints fans had been screaming "Reg-gie!" before the punt, then Dallas fans tauntingly cheered the same thing both after the fumble and after the ensuing touchdown.
Lost amid everything else were questionable decisions by both coaches on whether to punt, kick field goals or go for it on fourth down. Garrett made two in the second quarter that drew boos. Considering how it finished, they all mattered. ... The weirdest play was early in the fourth quarter. Dallas punter Mat McBriar dropped the snap and it bounced right up, so he kicked it. But once it hit the ground, it was a fumble, so the touch was illegal. Yet New Orleans was happy enough with the outcome to keep the play, so technically it counted as a fumble. ... Dallas had won four straight on Thanksgiving. The Cowboys fell to 27-15-1 on the holiday. ... New Orleans' deep snapper, holder and kicker all come from the same high school, Southlake Carroll, which happens to be a short drive from the stadium, in the suburb Payton used to live when he worked for the Cowboys. Their alma mater has a playoff game here Saturday.