Ware remains a force following injury

NEW ORLEANS -- DeMarcus Ware left Cowboys Stadium last week in an ambulance, strapped to a stretcher with fears of a career-ending injury running through his head.

Six days later, the Dallas Cowboys linebacker walked out of the Superdome with his head held high, having sealed a stunning upset of the New Orleans Saints with his second sack of the night.

It was simply an amazing performance, the kind that will come up in conversations the weekend Ware is inducted into the Hall of Fame. He showed a will to match his phenomenal physical gifts just by playing in the Cowboys' 24-17 win Saturday night over the Saints, much less making two fumble-forcing sacks.

"I thank up above, because I know how worried we were about him," said Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones, who gave Ware a six-year, $78 million contract extension earlier this season. "His trainers, his doctors, everybody said he could play. There was a question about where he was relative to that scare, coming out and playing. I think he showed just what a great player he is. In my mind, he's one of the top players in the NFL."

Jones will get no argument from the Saints, whose hopes for a perfect season were ruined in large part because of Ware's pair of sacks.

The first came late in the first half when the Saints were trying to gain a little momentum with a two-minute drill drive. Instead, Ware set up a Cowboys field goal that gave Dallas a two-touchdown lead by blowing past left tackle Jermon Bushrod to jar the ball loose, allowing Anthony Spencer to recover at the New Orleans 24-yard line.

The Saints, a team that has pulled off some unbelievable comebacks this season, didn't go down easily. They had a chance in the final moments of the game until Ware blew by Bushrod again for a strip sack that knocked out the Saints and gave the Cowboys' NFC East title hopes legitimacy.

All that by a man who wasn't sure he'd be able to play until hours before kickoff. Ware's mere presence provided an immeasurable emotional lift for a Cowboys team that appeared to be in the midst of another late-season fade.

"You can't say enough about him," said tight end Jason Witten, a fellow captain. "It was a scary deal last week. Obviously he's a heck of a player, but for him to overcome that and play the way he did, he's one of the best in the league. He showed that tonight."

Ware, who suffered a strained neck when he collided headfirst with San Diego Chargers offensive lineman Brandyn Dombrowski in last week's loss, wasn't able to practice while the Cowboys were preparing for the Saints. He had to go through what he termed a "neck sobriety test" to prove he could play against the Saints.

After showing good range of motion and strength in his neck, Ware head-butted fullback Deon Anderson in practice. At that point, he knew he was ready.

For the first time in his five-year career, Ware didn't start. He played primarily in the nickel package. But he showed no fear or hesitancy days after his frightening trip to a Dallas hospital.

"If you're going to go out there, you can't play that way," Ware said. "I've never played timid or nonaggressive. If I'm going to be out there, I've got to go 110 percent."

The pressure from Ware and Spencer, who also had two sacks, prevented Saints quarterback Drew Brees from getting into a rhythm until the fourth quarter.

But Brees almost rallied the Saints from a 21-point second-half deficit, engineering touchdown drives on New Orleans' first two possessions of the fourth quarter. Given the recent history of the teams involved, it was hard not to believe that the Saints would march down the field for the tying score when Cowboys kicker Nick Folk's 24-yard field goal attempt clanked off the right upright with 2:16 to play.

Ware made sure that didn't happen. After coming close to sacks a few times while the Saints dinked and dunked their way down the field, Ware bolted upfield with a speed rush and unloaded on Brees' blind side to knock the ball loose and give the Cowboys a firm grasp of their playoff destiny.

"It feels really good," Ware said, "especially when your teammates say, 'Hey, DeMarcus, we need you.'"

The Cowboys' playoff hopes and Ware's health appeared to be in serious jeopardy a week ago. Suddenly, after a spectacular performance by Ware, all is well.

Tim MacMahon covers the Dallas Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.