Brees breaks mark; Saints get victory
NEW ORLEANS — After four consecutive losses to open the season, the last one in heartbreaking fashion, the New Orleans Saints needed a lift in the worst way Sunday night.
On a festive night in which Drew Brees set an NFL record with a touchdown pass in his 48th consecutive game, breaking a tie with Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas, the 12-year veteran gave his team what it needed at just the right time.
Trailing 24-14 in the third quarter and in danger of going 0-5 for the first time since 1996, the Saints rallied behind Brees for 17 points in the final 151/2 minutes to come away with a 31-24 victory over the San Diego Chargers.
“We finally put together a complete team effort for all four quarters,” Brees said. “I can’t say enough about the guys in that locker room. Obviously, we’ve been through a lot already this year, but we’ve hung together.
“Hopefully, this is the first of many wins. It can come in no better fashion than on Sunday night football, going into the bye week. So hopefully, we’ll get healed up and get ready to get on a streak here.”
Despite getting an emotional lift from the presence of suspended coach Sean Payton, General Manager Mickey Loomis and assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who watched the game from suites in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the Saints were struggling in the second half.
But the crowd of 73,109, which celebrated when Brees fired a 40-yard touchdown pass to Devery Henderson in the first quarter to surpass Unitas’ mark, was getting edgy when they Saints trailed late in the third period.
Down 24-14 with three minutes to play in the quarter, a roughing the passer call negated an interception and 28-yard return for a touchdown by Chargers linebacker Demorrio Williams that would have extended San Diego’s lead to 31-14.
The Saints (1-4) took advantage of the penalty on linebacker Melvin Ingram as Brees went on to throw a 16-yard TD to Marques Colston, his second of the night, with 11 seconds to play in the third quarter and went back to Colston in the fourth period for a 5-yard score with 8:50 to play.
Then, the Saints’ much-maligned defense, which gave up a pair of touchdown passes to former teammate Robert Meachem in the first half as the Chargers took a 17-14 lead at the break, had two big stops in the closing eight minutes of the game to stun the Chargers (3-2).
First, free safety Malcolm Jenkins poked a pass away from Chargers wide receiver Malcolm Floyd and strong safety Roman Harper plucked the ball out of the air to end a scoring threat.
“We won the game, so that makes it better,” Harper said. “I’ve got to thank Malcolm first. He made a great play on the ball; he was there early and just waited on it. We always say, if you can’t get it, tip it up and one of your comrades will get it … and I was there, luckily.”
Harper’s 41-yard return deep into Chargers’ territory led to a 26-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley with 2:56 remaining that stretched the lead to seven points at 31-24.
Minutes later, the defense made another stand to close out the game as defensive end Martez Wilson charged in and sacked Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, stripping him of the ball and recovering it with 14 seconds left to preserve the lead and secure the victory.
The Saints, who rank last in the NFL in total defense and had only six sacks in their first four games, had two takeaways and recorded a season-high five sacks of Rivers.
He connected with Meachem for touchdowns of 15 and 44 yards before Ryan Mathews had a 13-yard scoring run early in the third quarter to push their lead to double digits before Brees rallied his team.
In addition to helping them feel better about themselves going into a bye week, the win allowed the Saints to enjoy a record-setting night for both Brees and Colston.
Brees completed 29 of 45 passes for 370 yards and four touchdowns against his old team while Colston, who had his first three-TD game since 2007, set a Saints franchise record for career receiving touchdowns.
Brees’ first touchdown, a 40-yard pitch to Devery Henderson, with 2:58 to play in the first quarter, moved him past Unitas with the Hall of Famer’s son, Joe, looking on after the two met before the game.
Then, in the second quarter, Colston caught the first of his three touchdowns on a 19-yard pass.
Colston’s second score, a 16-yarder in the third quarter, tied the career franchise record of 50 touchdowns by Joe Horn before he broke it in the fourth period.
Colston caught nine passes for 131 yards and Henderson had eight receptions for 123 yards.
“This was a big for the fans, for ownership, for the guys that were in visiting tonight that were not allowed to be on the sideline,” Saints interim coach Aaron Kromer said. “It’s an historic night.
“It’s just a good night all around. I stood up here for four weeks and talked about the team staying together. I talked about guys not giving up and getting better, and I said we were close. We had to get over the edge.”