By BRETT MARTEL, Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Matt Schaub and Drew Brees look ready as ever for the games that will count.
The defenses they picked apart might feel differently about the work they have left to do in a short couple weeks.
The star quarterbacks for Houston and New Orleans combined for 373 yards passing in a high-scoring first half, and Joseph Morgan's touchdown catch late in the fourth quarter lifted the Saints to a 34-27 preseason victory over the Texans on Saturday night.
"I feel like we have been sharp for the most part," Brees said. "Even though it hasn't been perfect, I think we've been pretty efficient.
"We have very high expectations for our team, this offense. We set the bar pretty high," Brees continued. "We just know how good we can be and we want to continue to test that limit as often as possible."
Schaub completed 15-of-18 passes for 194 yards and a touchdown, but three turnovers by Houston (No. 4 in the AP Pro 32) helped the Saints (No. 9) stay close despite two fumbles of their own.
"We were explosive. Our quarterback was excellent. He has had a great camp," Houston coach Gary Kubiak said. "I was pleased offensively with the way we moved the ball. I was not pleased with the turnovers."
Brees was 17 of 25 for 179 yards, including TD tosses of 20 yards to Lance Moore and 8 yards to Jimmy Graham. The performance was reminiscent of the Saints offense that broke numerous NFL records a season ago, a good sign after a troubled offseason defined by the league's bounty investigation and resulting season-long suspension of head coach Sean Payton.
"This night felt like so many nights that we had last year," said Graham, who had three catches for 48 yards. "I can't wait to play Washington (in the Sept. 9 regular-season opener)."
Texans rookie receiver Keshawn Martin scored his first pro touchdown, but then fumbled twice.
Houston's Ben Tate and Arian Foster each had short touchdown runs.
Saints reserve defensive end Junior Galette scored in kickoff coverage when he picked up Trindon Holliday's fumble and returning it 16 yards.
"There is obviously enough things there to keep us good and humble as we get ready to go play Miami (in the regular-season opener) in a couple of weeks," Kubiak said.
Morgan dove for his go-ahead catch on a hard, low, 4-yard pass from Chase Daniel with 3:38 to go. It was an important play for Morgan, whose fumble on a hit by Danieal Manning deep in Saints territory set up Foster's first-half touchdown run.
Morgan, an undrafted free agent in his second season out of Walsh University in Ohio, is hoping to earn a regular-season roster spot after spending last season on injured reserve.
The Saints opened the game without three of their top linebackers — Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain — who were all hurt in last week's preseason game against Jacksonville.
Already in the midst of adjusting to a new system under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the Saints' defense seemed further disconcerted by lineup upheaval.
Houston gained three first downs on its first four snaps en route to an eight-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. Schaub's 26-yard connection with tight end Garrett Graham put Houston at the 1, setting up Tate's TD run through the left side of the line.
"The guys around me were making plays. The offensive line was playing their tails off," Schaub said. "Everything was working well. We were seeing things clearly. Guys were making plays."
The Texans were right back in scoring position after Saints running back Chris Ivory fumbled on an awkward hit by Glover Quin, who also recovered at the Saints 40. Houston needed only five plays to go ahead 14-0 on Schaub's 10-yard pass over the middle to Martin.
"Their first 15 plays are the best in the league. We understand that," Saints safety Roman Harper said of Houston's offense. "They caught us off guard, but we did a decent job once we settled down into the flow of the game."
The Saints tied it before the first quarter ended.
Brees completed passes of 13, 14 and 10 yards before capping a six-play, 65-yard drive with his touchdown pass to Moore, who leapt over Kareem Jackson to make the catch.
Holliday then fumbled the next kickoff return when he was hit hard by Isa Abdul-Quddus, and the ball came to rest next to Galette, who scored easily.
Houston was driving again when Saints rookie Corey White stripped Martin and Sedrick Ellis recovered, leading to Garrett Hartley's 22-yard field goal to make it 17-14.
Foster trotted in untouched from 6 yards out to put Houston back up 21-17. Then rookie Randy Bullock, competing with veteran Shayne Graham for Houston's place-kicking job, hit from 33 yards to make it 24-17.
Shortly before the first half ended, Brees ducked away from trouble and hit Graham to tie it, capping a seven-play, 77-yard drive.
Hartley, who is competing with 42-year-old veteran John Kasay for the Saints' place-kicking job, put the Saints up 27-24 with a 33-yard field goal in the third quarter. Houston's Graham tied it with a 53-yard field goal that improved him to 5 for 5 in the preseason.
Hartley got a late chance to make a 53-yarder of his own, but it fell short.
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