IRVING, Texas (AP) – Bill Parcells used to teasingly refer to Sean Payton as “Dennis the Menace.” There’s no telling what Parcells might call his former assistant now.

Payton outsmarted his old boss early, then had some fun at his expense with an onside kick later, once the New Orleans Saints were well on their way to a 42-17 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night.

Having spent the last three years on Parcells’ staff, Payton knew exactly how to attack the Cowboys – and Drew Brees pulled it off perfectly, tying his career high with five touchdown passes, all before the third quarter ended. New Orleans finally showed mercy in the fourth period, even taking a knee from inside the 5 well before the two-minute warning.

Brees finished 26-of-38 for 384 yards, all without throwing a pass in the fourth quarter.

The Saints (9-4) grabbed sole possession of the second-best record in the NFC, putting them in position for a luxury the franchise has never enjoyed: a first-round playoff bye. That’s getting a little ahead of things considering New Orleans hasn’t won the division yet, but the rookie coach has guided his club to a two-game lead with three games left.

Parcells absorbed most of this one with his lips pinched and his arms crossed. Not even Tony Romo could save the Tuna from this embarrasment.

It was especially painful for Parcells because the Cowboys (8-5) had won their last four games and five of six, playing so well that on Monday he spoke to them about what it takes to win a championship. Plus, with Seattle losing earlier in the afternoon, Dallas went out knowing the No. 2 seed was there for the taking.

A four-play stand by the defense, then a 77-yard touchdown run by Julius Jones on the Cowboys’ second snap proved to be a tease. Neither unit looked that good again until the game was a rout.

A defense that hadn’t allowed more than 22 points in any of the last six games gave up 21 points in the second quarter, then another 21 in the third.

Romo was 4-of-11 for 44 yards with an interception and a sack at halftime, and didn’t get much better, falling to 5-2 as a starter.

AP-ES-12-10-06 2332EST

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