A miscommunication on what initially looked like a critical interception wound up setting the stage for the veteran quarterback and young tight end to hook up on a pair of big plays in a dramatic 40-33 comeback victory over the Houston Texans on Sunday.
"I love the fact that we can have something happen on the field that's a negative ... and instead of him getting down like some young players might and having that affect what happens later on, he comes out and make a couple huge catches," Brees said of the 6-foot-6 Graham, a second-year pro and converted basketball player out of Miami. "He's mentally tough, physically tough, he wants to be great and he wants me to be able to trust him and have confidence in him, which I do to the utmost."
Brees was intercepted twice, but made up for it with 370 yards passing and three second-half touchdown passes, including a 27-yard strike to Graham as the Saints (2-1) began to claw back from a 26-17 fourth-quarter deficit.
Then on third-and-10 with the Saints trailing 33-32 in the waning minutes, Brees found Graham over the middle for a 23-yard gain on which the tight end absorbed two heavy hits as he went down. Graham stood up and flexed both biceps while officials threw a flag for a late hit that put the Saints deep in Houston territory.
Mark Ingram then capped the eight-play, 93-yard drive with his first career TD on a 13-yard run that vaulted New Orleans ahead for good.
Graham blamed himself for Danieal Manning's interception of Brees earlier in the fourth quarter, which gave Houston the ball on the Saints 42 and set up James Casey's diving 20-yard touchdown catch from Matt Schaub.
As Houston was marching for that score, Brees told Graham to expect more passes to come his way.
"It meant a lot to me, being such a young player, that Drew has so much faith in me," said Graham, who led New Orleans with 100 yards receiving on four catches. "I told Drew that I would make it up to him."
Schaub passed for 373 yards and three TDs, and the Texans' prolific offense moved the ball well for most of the game. Houston (2-1) was doomed in the end by four drives inside the 20 that resulted in only field goals, along with Schaub's lone interception that Jabari Greer snagged near midfield in the fourth quarter, setting up Lance Moore's 16-yard touchdown catch.
"Our red zone performance wasn't good enough against a team like that, or any team, for that matter," Schaub said. "We needed touchdowns. We settled for too many field goals. We had to find a way to put it in the end zone."
The lead changed hands five times in a thrilling second half that included a slew of big plays, including Robert Meachem's diving touchdown catch in the back of the end zone on a hard-low, 2-yard pass from Brees.
There was also one bizarre touchdown in which Saints linebacker Jonathan Casillas' bobbled interception attempt put the ball in the lap of Kevin Walter. The receiver, who was not the intended target, snagged the ball and darted into the end zone for a 20-yard score that gave Houston a late 33-32 lead and stunned the Louisiana Superdome crowd.
By then, though, Brees and the Saints' offense was in rhythm.
"We had the perfect guy under center for that situation," said Moore, who had nine catches for 88 yards and two receptions on 2-point conversions. Devery Henderson had three catches for 62 yards.
The comeback brought a joyous end to the fifth anniversary of the Saints' first game in the rebuilt Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. That victory over Atlanta five years ago featured a blocked punt by Steve Gleason, who is now struggling with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, but who was able to speak to the team Saturday night and take part in the coin toss as an honorary captain while the crowd stood in an emotional applause.
"We've had a lot of emotions in the last 24 hours," Brees said. "Tonight was for a lot of things, but none more so than for Steve Gleason."
Houston, which was trying to improve to 3-0 for the first time, left regretting missed opportunities.
Ben Tate, who was trying to become only the second running back to open his NFL career with three 100-yard rushing games, was held to 82 yards on 19 carries.
Andre Johnson had seven catches for 128 yards and Casey finished with five receptions for 126, including a 62-yarder to set up Houston's first TD.
"We came into the game wanting to know where we are as a football team," Johnson said. "Everyone battled and left it all out there on the field, but we just didn't score seven points when we needed to. ... and playing against an offense like (the Saints'), you have to score seven instead of three."
Saints starting RT Zach Strief (right knee) and starting C Olin Kreutz (left leg) left the game. Saints coach Sean Payton declined to discuss their injuries. ... The Saints wore "throwback" uniforms with mustard yellow pants that resembled what they wore in the late 1960s. ... Houston is now 5 of 16 in scoring touchdowns from inside an opponent's 20-yard line. ... Houston's Neil Rackers' four field goals, which went from 22, 27 (twice) and 36 yards, made him 9 of 9 for the season. ... Brees' interceptions were his first of the season.