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 a 12-10 victory over the Cowboys on Sunday night.
Dallas came in with the NFL's third-ranked running game, averaging 179 yards, and had scored no fewer than 31 points in a game. The Cowboys met much more resistance in the Superdome, where the Saints' defensive front was bolstered by the return of defensive 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 injured record-setter Drew Brees. "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 (3-1) 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 blitzing rookie defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson and safety Marcus Williams came down with an interception for New Orleans' third forced turnover of the game.
While Brees watched from the sideline because of recent surgery on his right thumb, 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 kept the Saints (3-1) atop the NFC South and sent a message that they are not about to let Brees' estimated six-week absence sink their playoff hopes.
Ezekiel Elliott scored the game's only touchdown in the third quarter to give Dallas a 10-9 lead, but 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 won a hard-fought game and they won it with some good schemes and good coaching," Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said.
Prescott finished 22 of 33 for 223 yards.
While the Saints (3-1) could not get in the end zone, they sustained several productive 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 and 26 yards, in that order.
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, up by less than a field goal, 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.
Dallas' defensive end Robert Quinn had two sacks, one week after he had a sack and a career-high seven QB pressures in his Dallas debut against Miami following a two-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance enhancers.
Only a few days before the game, Saints coach Sean Payton mentioned that New Orleans was 12-1 with the officiating crew headed by referee Carl Cheffers that worked the game, and joked that his players better be nice. The Saints were penalized nine times for 80 yards, and a pass interference call against linebacker Damario Davis on third down extended Dallas' first touchdown drive in the third quarter. The Cowboys were penalized six times for 64 yards.
Cowboys: Reserve safety Kavon Frazier left the game in the first half with a pectoral injury. ... Left tackle Tyron Smith also appeared injured to have a lower body injury on the last drive.
Saints: Reserve defensive end Trey Hendrickson, who entered the game leading the Saints in sacks with three, was taken to the locker room with a neck injury in the second quarter and did not return.
Cowboys: Host Green Bay on Sunday.
Saints: Open NFC South play at home against Tampa Bay on Sunday.