NEW ORLEANS — The third exhibition game is usually as close as you get to seeing the real thing in the NFL preseason.
Even though it was technically the fourth game for the New Orleans Saints, thanks to an appearance in the Hall of Fame Game, Saturday night’s meeting with the Houston Texans was what fans had been waiting for.
With the starters going two full quarters in what amounted to their final tuneup, the teams played to a 24-24 tie in an entertaining first half before the second- and third-teamers put the finishing touches on the Saints’ 34-27 win in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
After the Texans (2-1) tied it at 27-27 on Shayne Graham’s 53-yard field goal with 10:43 to play, Saints backup quarterback Chase Daniel directed a 13-play, 79-yard drive that netted a game-winning, 4-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Joe Morgan with 3:38 remaining.
The Texans got one final chance after Garrett Hartley missed a 53-yard field goal in the final two minutes, but the Saints (2-2) hung on for the win when T.J. Yates’ fourth-down pass with 32 seconds left fell incomplete.
The second half was quieter with the reserves after a wild first half.
The Saints and Texans combined for 48 points and 457 yards as the first-team offenses for both teams clicked despite suffering two turnovers each.
“We’ve got to be able to protect the ball better,” Saints interim coach Joe Vitt said. “Our team knows that, and we will work hard on that. We still have to take the ball away a couple more times.”
The Texans also had a giveaway on special teams as former LSU standout Trindon Holliday put the ball on the ground on a kickoff return in the first quarter after being popped by Saints safety Isa Abdul-Quddus.
Saints defensive end Junior Galette picked up Holliday’s fumble and raced 16 yards to the end zone for a touchdown that tied the game at 14-14 with 3:54 to play in the first period.
That helped the Saints erase the Texans’ early 14-0 lead, which made the Superdome crowd a bit uneasy after they watched the Saints miss numerous tackles in last week’s 27-24 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Saints didn’t miss as many tackles, but the first-team defense had trouble against the run and pass as Matt Schaub was 15-of-18 for 194 yards and a touchdown and had a passer rating of 130.1.
“We improved on our tackling, and we had much better poise on the field than we did a week ago against Jacksonville,” Vitt said.
Houston scored on a 1-yard run by Ben Tate to cap an eight-play, 80-yard drive to open the game, then got a 10-yard TD pass from Schaub to rookie wide receiver Keshawn Martin with 7:11 left in the first period.
That score came after Saints running back Chris Ivory lost a fumble on a third-and-1 carry that netted 11 yards. Texans strong safety Glover Quin jarred the ball loose and recovered to set up a 40-yard drive.
Schaub was sharp on the first two drives and was 8-of-9 for 103 after the touchdown pass to a wide-open Martin.
But Drew Brees, who was 17-of-25 for 179 yards before turning the offense over to Daniel, responded to the big deficit by driving his team 65 yards to their first touchdown.
Brees was 4-of-4 for 57 yards on the drive, which was capped by a 20-yard TD pass to wide receiver Lance Moore. He caught the ball despite being interfered with by Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson.
Galette’s special teams score brought a fast-paced first quarter to a close.
Martin helped the Saints with two fumbles, the first with four seconds to play in the opening quarter on a hit by rookie cornerback Corey White.
The recovery by defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis led to a 22-yard field goal by Hartley, which gave the Saints a 17-14 lead.
The Texans capitalized on a fumble by Saints wide receiver Joe Morgan at the New Orleans 10 when Arian Foster skipped into the end zone on a 6-yard run before rookie kicker Randy Bullock increased the lead to 24-17 with a 33-yard field goal just before the two-minute warning.
Then, Brees executed the two-minute drill to perfection, taking his team 77 yards in seven plays and capped it with an 8-yard TD pass to tight end Jimmy Graham to tie the game at 24-24 with 15 seconds left.
“Obviously, (the Saints) moved the ball too well on us,” said Texans coach Gary Kubiak. “They are good. They are going to move the ball on you, so you’ve got to step up and make some plays. We did that, we stepped up and got some big turnovers and made some big plays.”
But the Saints had more of them in the second half as Daniel and the Saints took the kickoff and drove down to a 24-yard field goal by Hartley for a 27-24 lead before Graham tied it with his long 53-yarder.
“Our main goal was to play better than we have been playing,” said Moore. “We obviously produced a little more on offense, but we had a couple of turnovers and gave them a couple of touchdowns.
“But we moved the ball down field in the two-minute and got the touchdown, so that was important.”