The Saints, playing in their throwback jerseys with striped sleeves and mustard pants, endured a difficult first half that could have been much, much worse and entered halftime down only 16-10 despite having given up 304 yards of offense to Matt Schaub's Texan offense. Then in the fourth quarter, both offenses ignited into an old fashioned shootout with Drew Brees outgunning Matt Schaub for a thrilling 40-33 win.
The Saints defense bent but held in the red zone after the Texan's opening touchdown drive, preventing a blowout and forcing three field goals in the first half despite reeling at times without defensive captain Jonathan Vilma and starting CB Tracy Porter.
The Saints defense got the Texans offense down early in their opening possession, but Texans QB Matt Schaub overcame a long 3rd down attempt with a 15-yard completion to Andre Johnson. Schaub then moved easily down the field with completions to Johnson and TE Owen Daniels for the easy touchdown, as Daniels beat SS Roman Harper over the middle.
Two questionable non-calls against the TE Jimmy Graham, who was mugged and hit early on incomplete pass attempts, ended the Saints' first drive. The Saints didn't help themselves however - on the first snap, Brees fell down when he was stepped on by C Olin Kreutz, and later TE John Gilmore, Jr. committed his second false start penalty of the season.
The Saints continued good special teams play with a booming 48-yard punt and an immediate drop by undrafted rookie S Isa Abdul-Quddus at the Texan 12. But three plays later, on third and 8, Schaub found backup TE James Casey wide open down the right sideline, and Casey dashed 62 yards with CB Patrick Robinson and Harper in pursuit.
Gregg Williams' crew managed to stall Schaub with a short completion on third and six, bringing on the field goal team and keeping the lid on the game. K Neil Rackers made it 10-0 with 3:17 left in the first quarter with a 22 yard field goal. Schaub had racked up 139 yards passing on his first two drives against the Saints, and the Texans had eight first downs in the first quarter.
The Saints' second drive was ended by a low throw and a drop by RB Darren Sproles, who was open on a short cross. Morstead punted again, the Saints offense taking a little more than a minute off the clock to spell their overwhelmed defense.
During that drive, C Olin Kreutz prevented LB Brian Cushing from getting to Brees by grabbing and yanking Cushing's facemask all the way around, drawing a personal foul. Kreutz played the game not at full speed, with extra bracing attention paid to his left knee during the game. Brees exited the first quarter with only two completions for 21 yards. The offense would field backup guard Brian de la Puente at center in place of Kreutz in the second quarter.
The defense slowed Schaub with a coverage sack credited to Turk McBride on first down. On second down, rookie second round pick Martez Wilson could get up with an apparently left shoulder injury, possibly a stinger. The Saints had already lost OLB Will Herring to an apparent hamstring injury in the first quarter, meaning that the Saints were down to three healthy linebackers: Scott Shanle, Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Jonathan Casillas.
Schaub would overcome the sack with another third down conversion to WR Andre Johnson. The Saints would force another third and long and stop the Texans near midfield on a receiver screen, forcing the first Houston punt with 13:22 to go in the second quarter.
The offense would finally find traction in the second quarter as rookie RB Mark Ingram ripped off a 17 yard run. Brees would hit Robert Meachem for 12, a diving full extension catch to give the Saints a first down at midfield. Two plays later, a scrambling Brees would improvise a shovel pass to Pierre Thomas, who turned upfield for a 15-yard pickup to the Texan 36.
Two running plays by Sproles would cover the remaining yards, both runs to right. Sproles scored on a pitch right, picking up great blocks by Robert Meachem and Zach Strief in space and speeding through the Texan secondary for a 30-yard rushing touchdown. It is Sproles' third touchdown in three games as a Saint.
The Texans took back all scraps of momentum on their next drive, covering 71 yards on completions to Johnson for 48 and Daniels for 23 down to the Saint 9 yard line. The defense forced 3rd and goal from the nine yard line, then Schaub's quick pass was behind Johnson over the middle. The defense had bent backwards but held near the goal line, forcing a field goal and a 13-7 Texan lead. Again, the beleaguered defense kept a lid on the game despite what looked like a blowout on paper. Andre Johnson had 104 yards receiving at the end of that drive with 6:20 left in the half, compared to Drew Brees' 55 yards passing.
Brees' first pass of the next drive was picked off by CB Jonathan Joseph at the Saint 38, intended for Devery Henderson. It was a poor throw right to Joseph and Brees' first turnover of the season.
The Texans didn't miss a beat, with Ben Tate ripping off a 19 yard run and just like that, Schaub was threatening the red zone. But the defense held the game in reach again, forcing an incomplete with heavy pass rush on third down, and bringing Neil Rackers onto the field for a third short field goal. With 3:53 before halftime, the Texans had over 300 yards of offense but only 16 points to show for it.
Brees rebounded from his first interception to get the Saints moving again late in the half, with Brees finding Devery Henderson open and turning up the left sideline for a 44-yard gain. A second down sack by rookie DE JJ Watt set up 3rd and 17. RB Darren Sproles blocked wide left then slashed open over the middle where Brees hit him in space. Sproles gashed the Texans for 15 of the 17 yards he needed. The Saints initially planned to go for it on 4th and short from the Texan 17, but then kicked a 35-yard field goal to cut the lead to 16-10 with less than a minute left in the half.
Brian de la Puente remained the Saints' center to start the second half. The Saints picked up a first down on a strike to Lance Moore. Two plays later, the Saints would lose their second starting offensive lineman when Zach Strief laid hurt on his back with an apparent right knee injury. Second year T Charles Brown, a second round pick last April, entered the game at right tackle. Brees didn't miss a step, hitting Robert Meachem for a 16 yard gain on 3rd and 11.
The crowd was ignited two plays later when Brees hit Jimmy Graham over the middle. The electric power forward leapt over on defender, scrapped and dragged three more on his way to 32 yard gain down inside the five. Two plays later, the Saints took an impossible lead when a scrambling Brees found Meachem on the turf in the back of the end zone.
Despite being dominated statistically in the first half, the Saints lead after their first drive of the second half. Like Sproles, Robert Meachem now has a touchdown in each game, and 20 in his short career so far. It was a landmark score for Brees too, his 30th straight game with a touchdown pass. That streak is the third longest in NFL history, behind Johnny Unitas with 47 and Brett Favre with 36. Brees' 30 straight games with a TD ties Dan Marino.
The Texans took their opening possession of the third quarter to the Saint 18, but settled for a fourth field goal after Saints DB Leigh Torrence dropped a near-interception in the end zone. Roman Harper was on the coverage as well, and had a lot of uncalled contact with Andre Johnson on the throw. The Texans took back the lead with the 36 yarder, up 19-17, but had converted four straight red zone possessions into four field goals.
The Saints got moving again, picking up a first down on a strike to Lance Moore. The Texans put Mario Williams on the right side of the Saints' offensive line, lining up wide against Charles Brown. Brown handled his assignment fairly well, though Williams put a yank on Brees' facemask that was uncalled. Two plays earlier, Texans CB Kareem McKenzie launched himself into a scrambling Drew Brees. One official threw a flag that was immediately overruled by the head umpire, who explained that because Brees did not slide feet first, he was not a protected player. The umpire ignored the fact that McKenzie made helmet-to-helmet contact with Brees on the ground.
Brees and the offense were on a roll, as a completion to Henderson to the Saint 44 converted a third and 8. But Brees' next throw was deep down the seam to Graham, but Graham didn't turn for the ball. The pass was easily picked by CB Danieal Manning, who returned it to the Saint 42. The Texans made the Saints pay for Graham's mistake - skipping their routine trip into the end zone and instead throwing to TE James Casey in one-on-one coverage with LB Jonathan Casillas on the first play of the fourth down. Casey caught a diving pass at the goal line from 26 yards out. Even though Casillas was in good position, he didn't make a play on the ball, and Casey made a great catch.
For the first time in the game, the Saints appeared to be in danger of losing grasp, down by nine with just under 15 minutes to go. Credit the Saints for staying balanced and coming out on their next possession with runs by Pierre Thomas. The Saints picked up a first down on the ground, but DL Antonio Smith whipped LG Carl Nicks on the inside and dropped Drew Brees for a seven yard sack. The Saints punted two plays later, but the defense forced a three and out on an incompletion to Johnson on 3rd and 9.
Brees back under center near midfield moved to the Houston 30 on two completions to Sproles on the left side of the field, then hit Graham down the right sideline in one-on-one coverage. Graham hauled the pass in high above the defender at the front pylon and the Saints pulled within two. The Texans were reeling a bit, and the pressure was on Schaub, who showed it. He threw a near interception to Jabari Greer deep down the field, then two plays later Greer made up for it, picking Schaub as he threw to his failsafe Johnson.
Greer's fifth pick in three seasons as a Saint was huge. Brees took over near midfield and the Saints were in full attack mode, as Brees fired six straight passes - the last to Lance Moore over the middle into the end zone from 16 yards out. Up by four, the Saints went for the two point conversion and the Saints dialed up Lance Moore again - in the same pattern used in Super Bowl XLIV. It was an easy pitch and catch, and the Brees-to-Moore connection but the Saints up by six with 7:14 left.
The shootout continued, with Schaub getting good protection and throwing to tight ends Daniels and Casey down to the Saint 31. The Texans dialed up the same pattern that Casey scored on against Casillas earlier, but this time Casillas looked up and batted the pass away.
The Texans picked up another first down just outside the Saint 20 when the most bizarre play happened - Schaub's unterneath pass to TE Joel Dreessen was deflected by Casillas with two hands, went off Patrick Robinson's hands and into the grasp of Kevin Walter, who was stunned to have it. Walter turned and rambled into the end zone, losing Robinson and dragging Malcolm Jenkins for the score. The extra point but the Texans up by one. Schaub's 20 yard touchdown pass to Walter should have been an interception by Casillas.
Brees took the ball with 4:08 left deep in his own territory after a block in the back on Sproles' kickoff return, but moved to his own 22 with a quick hit to the slippery Lance Moore. With the clock rolling at 3:40, Brees picked at the Texans underneath, hitting Graham for a first down to the Saint 35, then Sproles for a first down with 3:05 left to the Saint 46.
On the next play, CB Jonathan Joseph grabbed and turned Robert Meachem's helmet on a deep incomplete pass but the officials refused the blatant flag. Another deep out to Meachem and the Saints faced 3rd and 10 on this crucial drive. That's when Brees dialed up Graham again, a gorgeous strike down the seam to the Texan 25 that also drew an unnecessary roughness flag when Danieal Manning drove his helmet into Graham's facemask. Tough as nails, the Saints' power forward held on and the Saints were at the Texan 13.
Mark Ingram's first touchdown in the NFL came on the next play against the gassed Texan defense, rumbling through on a draw play from 13 yards out to the delight of a raucous Superdome. The same exact two point conversion play followed again - Brees to Moore to the right pylon, and the Saints were up by seven, 40-33.
Schaub took over with 2:42 left in desperation mode - a third and 5 pass deep down the middle to TE Joel Dreessen was incomplete, but an offensive pass interference penalty on Dreessen was called. Sean Payton accepted the flag, giving the Texans 3rd and 15 instead of 4th and 5.
Gregg Williams' defense then finally got to Schaub, DB Leigh Torrence going over the top of the quarterback, who escaped but stumbled away. While rolling, SS Roman Harper fell onto Schaub. Harper was obviously trying to slow his hit, but still ended up driving his knee into the crown of Schaub's helmet. Schaub grimaced in pain, grabbing his helmet, but stayed in the game for 4th and 21.
Schaub's pass down the middle fell incomplete, broken up by two Saints, and Brees took over on downs at the Texan 9 with 1:53 left. The Saints lined up in power formation and ran up the middle with Ingram three times, getting only to the Houston 5 but forcing Gary Kubiak to burn his three timeouts. The Saints let time roll of the clock and called their last timeout with :57 left, lining up for a short field goal.
Kasay put the Saints up by 10 with the chipshot, until refs took the points off the board with a penalty.
Defensive holding was called at the line on the Texans, giving the Saints an automatic first down with a seven point lead. Brees put his helmet back on and kneeled away the final :53.