NEW ORLEANS - This was the big win the Dallas Cowboys had been unable to obtain late in the season.

A 24-17 victory Saturday night over previously undefeated New Orleans is the signature moment these Cowboys sought. It meant the players, for at least one night, didn't have to address their December failures.

It meant the team still controls its playoff fate.

Now the Cowboys own a playoff spot heading into Christmas. The win keeps the Cowboys on the Eagles' heels for the NFC East title and the New York Giants behind them.

"I know this gives us a chance to be the team we want to be," owner Jerry Jones said. "The guys gained a lot of confidence."

The Cowboys made big plays at crucial moments and played with a pace and a confidence that had been on the wane in recent weeks. Quarterback Tony Romo, tarred with a 5-10 December record entering the night, outdueled MVP candidate Drew Brees.

DeMarcus Ware played an inspiring game just six days after he was strapped to a stretcher and carted off the field with a neck injury. The Pro Bowl linebacker forced two fumbles on two sacks, the last coming with six seconds left.

Led by Ware, a Cowboys defense criticized for its inability to force turnovers came up with three this night and held the high-scoring Saints without a touchdown entering the fourth quarter. The offense staggered New Orleans with six plays of 20 or more yards. Marion Barber, denied three times from the 1-yard line in the loss to San Diego, scored twice and ran with a hard-hitting purpose.

The team even managed to survive another missed field goal by Nick Folk, this one from 24 yards with 2 minutes, 16 seconds left.

"I said all along this team has a lot of heart, a lot of character, a lot of leaders," coach Wade Phillips said.

"It looked like things were not going well for us with two losses in a row. But I didn't think this team could be beaten three times in a row, and they weren't."

The Cowboys, in Romo's words, entered the game feeling a little like the Saints' homecoming opponent.

"Everybody was talking about them, and no one was talking about us," said Romo, who threw for 312 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. "I think, as a team, that motivated us a lot."

It showed. Dallas seized control from the start and led, 17-3, at the half.

Miles Austin froze rookie cornerback Malcolm Jenkins with a move along the sidelines then breezed in with a 49-yard touchdown pass on the team's first possession. An eight-play, 60-yard scoring drive followed.

For the first time since Thanksgiving Day of 2008, the Cowboys opened a game with touchdowns on their first two possessions. The 14 points were more than the team had scored in the first quarter of the last six games combined.

Unlike the previous two games, the Cowboys did not stumble to end the first half. The defense came up with two turnovers in the final 1:53. The first, Mike Jenkins' interception, kept New Orleans from scoring. The second, a fumble forced by Ware and recovered by Anthony Spencer, led to a 44-yard field goal by Folk as time expired.

The Cowboys scored on their opening drive of the third quarter to push their lead to 21 points. New Orleans scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. But there was Ware again with a sack and a forced fumble in the final seconds to secure the team's biggest win of the season.