Rabalais: For the most part, Saints able to complete checklist

CBS saw a tantalizing matchup between New Orleans and Indianapolis when it decided to televise Saturday’s preseason game, in full denial of the fact preseason games rarely resemble the real thing.

For the Saints, though, there was a lot about this one that had real meaning. They came to Indy, checklist in hand, with some important personnel points to tick off.

Call it their Agenda Game.

That the Saints actually won the game 23-17 is of little consequence. By the time this one was decided, Drew Brees was somewhere having a massage and a martini.

But getting Brees back in the game was the prime directive after he missed the first two preseason games with a strained oblique.

If you’ve never strained an oblique, you don’t know how hard it makes it to throw passes in the formerly Slap Ya Mama Red Zone. But in the brief time Brees was on display, he showed no signs of rust, no evidence of tender oblique-ness.

Brees’ performance reminded me of the mythic joke about a retired Cary Grant replying to a telegram:

“How old Drew Brees?”

“Old Drew Brees fine. How you?”

There were a couple of wayward throws, perhaps miscommunications, but for the vast majority of a breezy quick first quarter Old No. 9 was on form as ever.

On the Saints’ first touchdown drive, Brees found Marques Colston for a 13-yard gain with Colston wearing Colts’ cornerback Greg Toler like an extra jersey. Later, Brees lofted a patented 38-yard pass to Jimmy Graham that sailed just over the fingertips of linebacker D’Qwell Jackson with a jeweler’s touch that would have made Joe Montana weep.

And then he was gone, his final stat line: 9 of 15 for 128 yards and two touchdowns, one to surging fullback Austin Johnson, the other on a balletic back-of-the-end-zone grab by Colston.

“The confidence is the same as it’s always been,” Brees said. “You have a lot of trust and confidence in the guys you’re throwing to.

“We have some subtle nuances built into our offense that allows guys to make plays.”

Hope you caught his act, because there’s a good chance Brees won’t play the palace when the Saints return home Thursday to host Baltimore. I think I saw Sean Payton go up to him on the sideline and whisper, “Save your arm, my darling, for Atlanta.” (Hey, it’s preseason. The occasional embellishment is allowed).

The Saints finally got Jarius Byrd, their high-priced free agent free safety, on the field for some significant playing time. The oft-injured Patrick Robinson also logged some serious minutes, as did cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Champ Bailey. Bailey’s warranty has long expired, but he showed signs he can at least be the savvy third option at his position the Saints hoped he would be when they signed him after he was cut by Denver.

Except for one bust on Andrew Luck’s first touchdown pass, the Saints secondary looked good, as did the starters overall. Take preseason for what you will, but when both teams were trying to set a tone with their best players, the Saints clearly had the upper hand on what should again be one of the AFC’s best teams.

And New Orleans was on the plus side of the turnover margin once again, by a 3-1 count this time, a major positive for the Saints after making turnovers such a point of emphasis this preseason.

It wasn’t all chocolate milk and sunshine for the Saints, though.

First, Payton’s stated goal of reducing his team’s penalties to an acceptable number remained an elusive target.

The Saints, who were flagged a mind-boggling 22 times last week against Tennessee, made it 10 penalties midway through the second half when reserve quarterback Ryan Griffin was whistled for intentional grounding. Perhaps New Orleans’ most vexing penalty came when the Saints were called for delay of game at the 1 with Luke McCown playing quarterback in the second period, forcing them to eventually settle for the second of Shayne Graham’s field goals and a 20-7 lead.

Not sure, but I think I saw Payton take a bite out of his visor.

On a truly somber note, wide receiver Kenny Stills was sent to the locker room late in the first quarter with a quad pull, apparently the same quadriceps injury that kept him out of the first three weeks of training camp and a troubling sign with the regular season coming into view.

But the Saints weren’t ever likely to motor away from Indy with all their boxes checked. It was a strong showing on the road against a quality team, one that bodes well when the agenda includes winning games for real.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.