NEW ORLEANS — On an emotion-filled Sunday afternoon in the Superdome, it would have been easy for the New Orleans Saints to get down on themselves on any number of occasions.
They trailed the Houston Texans by 10 points after the Texans’ first two possessions en route to allowing 301 total yards in the first half; Drew Brees threw his first two interceptions of the season, the second helping the Texans to a touchdown and nine-point lead early in the fourth quarter; and they were decimated by injuries on the offensive line and at linebacker.
But, the Saints didn’t let the bad emotions get the best of them.
Instead, they used the return of former special teams standout Steve Gleason, who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis earlier this year, as an emotional springboard to a 40-33 victory over the previously-undefeated Texans.
With Gleason looking on, the Saints (2-1) erupted for 23 points in the final 9 ? minutes to wipe out a 26-17 deficit and sweep past the Texans (2-1) on the fifth anniversary of the re-opening of the Superdome.
In a blowout win over the Atlanta Falcons that memorable night, Gleason, who spoke to the Saints at the team hotel Saturday night, blocked a punt in the first 90 seconds and teammate Curtis Deloatch picked it up in the end zone for the touchdown that ignited a 23-3 win.
“I think that goes without saying,” Saints coach Sean Payton said of what Gleason, who was awarded a game ball, meant to them. “It was great to see him and his family. He’s an inspiration to all of us, that whole locker room.”
The Saints, however, drew their inspiration from many sources — including backups who stepped in when Pro Bowl middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma missed the game with a knee injury and center Olin Kreutz and right tackle Zach Strief were lost during the contest.
“This game showed a lot about our character,” said Saints cornerback Jabari Greer, whose diving interception off Matt Schaub led to one of his team’s three touchdowns in a wild final period. “This showed our resilience.”
Working hand-in-hand with his defense, which held the Texans to 172 yards in the second half, Brees led a furious fourth-quarter comeback after throwing two interceptions that led to 10 Houston points.
Brees connected with tight end Jimmy Graham for a 27-yard touchdown strike with 9:30 remaining to cut the deficit to 26-24, then found wide receiver Lance Moore with a 16-yard TD just two minutes later.
A two-point conversion pass to Moore gave the Saints a 32-26 lead with 7:10 left before the Texans came back on a 20-yard TD pass from Schaub to wide receiver Kevin Walter with 4:13 to play.
Walter’s nifty catch came on a pass intended for tight end Joel Dreessen, but Saints weakside linebacker Jonathan Casillas tipped it right into the hands of Walter, who scampered to the end zone for a 33-32 lead.
But another big pass from Brees to Graham on third-and-10 from the Saints’ 46 netted 41 yards — 28 on the catch and a 13-yard half-the-distance penalty on Texans free safety Danieal Manning for a personal foul — that set up Mark Ingram’s first NFL touchdown on a 13-yard run with 2:42 left.
That turned out to be the game-winner.
“If you do things the right way, good things are going to happen,” said Brees, whose 2-yard TD to wide receiver Robert Meachem at the outset of the second half gave the Saints their first lead at 17-16. “We’re going to get opportunities. We found that string of opportunities in the second half, and we cashed in.”
The Saints’ defense also did its part despite giving up 473 total yards, holding the Texans to just one touchdown in five trips to the red zone — a 14-yard toss from Schaub to tight end Owen Daniels on their first series.
The Texans, who came into the game 4 of 11 in the red zone in their first two games, had to settle for field goals of 22, 27, 27 and 36 yards by Neil Rackers before Schaub connected with fullback James Casey on a 26-yard TD on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Schaub, who completed 22 of 39 passes for 373 yards with three TDs and one interception, was sacked twice — the second by nickel cornerback Leigh Torrence on the second-to-last offensive play for the Texans.
“I think every game is like that — in a way,” Torrence said about surviving in the fourth period. “When plays had to be made, we made them happen.”
Running back Ben Tate had 82 yards on 19 carries and wide receiver Andre Johnson finished with seven catches for 128 yards — including just two for 24 yards in the second half — but was held out of the end zone all day.
“We were down nine (points) in the fourth quarter, but we pride ourselves on playing well in the fourth quarter,” Saints defensive end Will Smith said. “We definitely knew we had to get stops and give our offense opportunities to score, and we got a turnover and another stop.”
Despite the two interceptions, Brees was 31-of-44 for 370 yards with three TDs. He was sacked twice and finished with a passer rating of 99.6
At one point in the fourth quarter, he threw 14 straight passes on three drives that were each capped by touchdowns.
“It looked to me like they just put the game in Drew’s hands,” said Texans coach Gary Kubiak. “They spread the field and let him go to work. We got them in tough third-down situations, but they seemed to convert them all.”
Graham caught four passes for 100 yards and Moore had nine receptions for 88 yards as the Saints skewered the Texans’ top-ranked defense, which allowed just 271.0 yards in their first two games, for 454 yards.
“You find ways to win, and certainly, you can find ways to lose,” Payton said. “It’s just not dumb luck. We hung in and did enough good things.”