One-quarter of the way into the NFL season, it’s virtually impossible to tell which team is the NFC’s best.

The Dallas Cowboys had their chance Sunday night in New Orleans to stake their claim. But they failed to do it. Their once-powerful offense was shut down and they lost to the Saints, 12-10, at the raucous Superdome.

“No one said it had to be pretty,” Teddy Bridgewater, the Saints’ fill-in starter at quarterback while Drew Brees is sidelined, told NBC after the game. “But we were able to come away with a win tonight. The defense, hats off to those guys…. Overall [it’s] a great team win and we’re all excited.”

It was the Saints’ first touchdown-less victory since 1998. They scored only on four field goals by kicker Wil Lutz. The New Orleans defense, improbably, made certain that was enough.

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The Cowboys entered this week’s play ranked third in the NFL in total offense and fourth in scoring offense. First-year offensive coordinator Kellen Moore looked like a rising star in the coaching ranks. Quarterback Dak Prescott very much resembled a league MVP candidate. Wide receiver Amari Cooper was tied for the league lead with four touchdown catches. Tailback Ezekiel Elliott was coming off consecutive 100-yard rushing performances.

The Saints, meanwhile, were ranked 28th in the league in total defense and 26th in scoring defense.

But nothing was easy for the Dallas offense Sunday night. The Cowboys managed only 257 yards of total offense and reached the end zone only once, on Elliott’s one-yard run in the third quarter.

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Elliott ran for only 35 yards on the night. Prescott managed a modest 223 passing yards and had his desperation throw on the game’s final play intercepted. The Cowboys had first-half turnovers on fumbles lost by Elliott and tight end Jason Witten. Cooper had only five catches for 48 yards.

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“That’s a good defense we were playing,” Prescott said at his postgame news conference. “Give them a lot of credit…. We didn’t execute the way we need to execute.”

The Cowboys dropped to 3-1. They also watched left tackle Tyron Smith leave the game in the final two minutes with an injury to his lower right leg suffered on a play on which Prescott was sacked. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told reporters that Smith had suffered a high ankle sprain.

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The NFC is a jumbled mess at the moment. The Green Bay Packers lost Thursday night at home to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Los Angeles Rams surrendered 55 points while losing earlier Sunday in L.A. to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Saints are without Brees. The Chicago Bears lost their quarterback, Mitchell Trubisky, to a shoulder injury suffered Sunday. The Seattle Seahawks lost at home a week ago to the Brees-less Saints. The Eagles have had their struggles with an injury-depleted offense. The San Francisco 49ers, idle this week, are the conference’s only unbeaten team. The 49ers?

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The Cowboys could have been the NFC’s team to beat. Now they’re not. But no one else is, either.

The Saints improved to 3-1 and won their second straight game with Bridgewater starting at quarterback in place of Brees. With Brees watching from the Saints’ sideline with his surgically repaired right thumb in a brace, Bridgewater threw an early interception and took an ill-advised sack at game’s end to keep Lutz from attempting a field goal that would have pushed the lead to five points. It wasn’t perfect. Far from it.

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But now the Saints have beaten the Seahawks and the Cowboys without Brees. It was reported on the NBC broadcast Sunday night that Brees believes he can return to the lineup around Week 8. The defensive performance against the Cowboys certainly was uplifting. Saints Coach Sean Payton acknowledged that there is much that must be improved. But at least his team will be trying to clean up its mistakes while winning, not while losing.

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“We’re doing enough to win some of these close games,” Payton said afterward, “and that’s encouraging.”

With the current state of the NFC, there is room for plenty of teams to hope.

In-game updates

FINAL: Saints 12, Cowboys 10

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4th quarter

Saints reclaim lead: New Orleans continues to get field goals instead of touchdowns but reclaimed the lead over the Cowboys early in the fourth quarter. Kicker Wil Lutz connected from 26 yards this time. The Saints had the ball for 15 plays and took more than nine minutes off the clock but remained unable to reach the end zone. Josh Hill had a key dropped pass at the Dallas 3-yard line. Teddy Bridgewater slid short of a first-down on a third-down scramble just before Lutz’s kick. Officials initially dropped a flag for a late hit by the Cowboys’ Jaylon Smith on Bridgewater’s slide. But they decided after a quick conference — correctly, it seemed — that there was minimal contact and no penalty was warranted. (Saints 12, Cowboys 10 with 13:41 left in the 4th quarter)

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3rd quarter

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Cowboys take lead: Quarterback Dak Prescott and the Cowboys have been terrific during the third quarter this season, and that continued on this night. They got the game’s first touchdown on a one-yard run by tailback Ezekiel Elliott to take the lead over the Saints. The Cowboys now have outscored opponents, 42-10, in the third quarter this season. Prescott completed all six of his passes on the drive and is 28 for 28 on third-quarter throws on the season. (Cowboys 10, Saints 9 with 7:47 left in the 3rd quarter)

Halftime: The offenses didn’t do much in the first half at the Superdome. The Saints got three field goals by kicker Wil Lutz and lead the Cowboys, 9-3. Lutz’s third field goal came as time expired in the half after the Saints took a risk by running a play from the Dallas 1-yard line with four seconds remaining. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater threw an incompletion on a high throw out of bounds, but only two seconds came off the clock. The Cowboys committed a pair of first-half turnovers, on fumbles lost by tight end Jason Witten and running back Ezekiel Elliott, and have managed only a single field goal and 115 yards of total offense. Elliott has been limited to 27 rushing yards while quarterback Dak Prescott has thrown for 81 yards. Bridgewater threw an interception during a first half in which he connected on 14 of 19 passes for 124 yards. (Saints 9, Dallas 3 at halftime)

2nd Quarter

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Elliott loses fumble: Cowboys Coach Jason Garrett left the Dallas offense on the field for a fourth-and-one gamble from the Cowboys’ 43-yard line. The Cowboys converted, but Ezekiel Elliott lost a fumble at the end of the run. The Saints take over on the Cowboys’ half of the field with about a minute and a half to play in the first half. (Saints 6, Cowboys 3 with 1:20 left in the second quarter.)

Witten fumbles: Cowboys tight end Jason Witten lost a fumble on a run after a catch. The Saints recovered and take over at their own 47-yard line. There hasn’t been much offense so far. Each team has committed a turnover and there hasn’t been a touchdown in the game. (Saints 6, Cowboys 3 with 7:06 left in the 2nd quarter.)

Another FG for Saints: It’s a field goal-fest at the Superdome. The Saints have the lead after kicker Wil Lutz’s second field goal of the night, a 42-yarder. Teddy Bridgewater is off to a decent start, other than his tipped-ball interception. He has completed eight of 10 passes for 84 yards. (Saints 6, Cowboys 3 with 8:42 left in the 2nd quarter)

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Saints draw even: The Saints pulled even on a 40-yard field goal by kicker Wil Lutz on the opening play of the second quarter. The promising drive stalled with a penalty for an illegal block and a sack. Earlier, the Saints were moving the ball on the ground. Alvin Kamara had a 13-yard run. Taysom Hill took over for Teddy Bridgewater for a play and went 18 yards with a quarterback keeper. And Deonte Harris went 10 yards on an end-around. (Cowboys 3, Saints 3 with 14:55 left in the 2nd quarter)

1st Quarter

Cowboys get FG: The Cowboys have the early lead in New Orleans after kicker Brett Maher connected on a 28-yard field goal. (Cowboys 3, Saints 0 with 5:08 left in the 1st quarter)

Bridgewater throws interception: With Drew Brees standing on the Saints’ sideline with his surgically repaired right thumb in a brace, fill-in starter Teddy Bridgewater threw an interception on the first New Orleans possession of the night. It wasn’t completely Bridgewater’s fault, though. He rolled to his right out of trouble and zipped a high pass to Ted Ginn Jr., who had the ball bounce off his hands while being hit. The Cowboys’ Chidobe Awuzie grabbed the football on the carom. The Cowboys get the ball back after punting on the game’s opening possession. (Cowboys 0, Saints 0 with 8:42 left in the 1st quarter)

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