HOUSTON — This is the turning point.
A month of training camp has led the New Orleans Saints here, to the most meaningful preseason game (if you can say that about preseason) of the entire schedule against the Houston Texans.
Two weeks from Sunday, the Saints will begin the real work of the regular season with a hugely important season and home opener against the archrival Atlanta Falcons. If you’re already salivating over that showdown, the wait could be so painful it requires a doctor’s supervision.
Or if you want to take the first two preseason games and leave a wakeup call for Sept. 8, that’s understandable. For much of a hot and fitful month of August, preseason football is a snooze.
The Saints and the Texans are both 2-0 so far. If this were a meeting of two 2-0 teams in the regular season, it would be one hot ticket on the resale market. As it is, the action will seem counterfeit compared to what we will get next month.
In most of the games, the big names make only cameo appearances, and the rest of the time, you’re making yourself crazy trying to figure out who that guy is who just got that carry or where the guy who made that tackle went to college — was it somewhere in Canada?
The Saints are no exception to the lackluster rule. Wide receiver Marques Colston hasn’t seen the field yet this month but could play. Running back Pierre Thomas has also been idling but is expected to make at least a few carries.
Houston Texans All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt has played all of two snaps. Not two quarters, two whole snaps.
Sunday’s tuneup with the Texans is a worthwhile appetizer to the dramatic season that is approaching rapidly. Not completely satisfying, but filling enough for now.
By preseason standards, this will be the most watchable game the Saints play this month.
Most of the starters will play past halftime for the first and probably only time this preseason, a dangerous but necessary dress rehearsal with the final preseason game — the Saints make a quick turnaround to wrap up Thursday at Miami — a by-the-numbers exercise in faux football.
Secondly, these are the Texans the Saints are playing. The Saints’ first two preseason wins at home against Kansas City and Oakland gave glimpses and flashes that New Orleans is back to being an upper echelon NFL team.
But while the Saints should wind up being a double-digit winner again, the Chiefs and Raiders combined probably won’t be able to count to 10 wins when the regular season is over.
The Texans are another story. Houston was 12-4 in 2012, the second-best record in the AFC behind only the Denver Broncos. That’s a tough mark to match, but there’s every indication that Houston will be able to spar toe-to-toe with the Indianapolis Colts for supremacy in the AFC South.
If the Saints are going to be a team that can win the NFC South, they need to show something against Houston.
The offense that has averaged 398 yards in the first two games is compelled to show it can move the ball with authority against the Texans — at least with Drew Brees in the game. The defense that sacked Raiders quarterbacks seven times last week needs to exert pressure on Matt Schaub and his backups, certainly not to the same extent but enough demonstrate that it will be an asset and not the colossal liability it was in the lost season of 2012.
The Saints will cut down to 75 players Tuesday before lopping 22 more names off the roster to get down to the required 53 by Saturday. Borderline players will get no better chance than Sunday to show they should get to stick around for the regular season.
Ultimately of course, the most important thing is that the Saints navigate 60 minutes without adding key names to their injury list. The linebacker corps with players like Jonathan Vilma, Martez Wilson, Victor Butler, Curtis Lofton and Junior Galette being sidelined has already exceeded its medical deductible.
Winning, or even performing well in this game, pales in comparison to that. Get home 3-0 if you can, is the Saints’ rallying cry, but just get home in the best shape possible.