Drew Brees and Marques Colston teamed up and took on the Chargers all by themselves Sunday night on NBC prime time television, collecting 17 second half points to come back from a 10 point third quarter deficit.
Brees hit Colston for a second quarter touchdown to break Johnny Unitas' 52-yard old NFL record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass, then hit Colston for two more in the second half. That also pushed Colston past Joe Horn for the most touchdown catches in team history, giving Colston 52 career touchdown catches and four on the season.
Meanwhile, the Saints avoided their first 0-5 start since 1996, picking up a backed-against-the-walls win with their suspended head coach overlooking the game in a suite with his kids. Suspended Sean Payton was given special permission to attend the game because of the potential for Brees breaking Unitas' record.
Former Saint WR Robert Meachem threatened to rain on the record parade tonight, scorching the beleaguered Saints secondary for two first half touchdowns, each time drawing the ire of former teammate FS Malcolm Jenkins, beaten on the play. Each time, Meachem blew past rookie CB Corey White and beat Jenkins over the top.
Rookie White was dismal on the night, save for a solid tackle to force a punt on the Chargers' first drive. But he wasn't alone. CB Jabari Greer aggravated a groin injury, tried to play through but left the game for good in the second quarter. That left starter Patrick Robinson, who was beaten deep by Floyd and avoided on open field tackle attempts, White and second year Johnny Patrick. The Saints may lose Greer for the season now with his problematic groin injury, thrusting White or Patrick into action in which they are often overmatched.
Meachem gave the Chargers an early lead on their second drive, a seven play, 91-yard drive, but Brees matched it with a nine play, 80-yard drive that was capped with the record-breaking touchdown throw to Devery Henderson from 40 yards out. Henderson fooled CB Quentin Jammer on an out-and-up route and was wide open for Brees to step up and deliver a spiral in stride. With Lance Moore out with a hamstring injury, Henderson and Colston needed to step up big and did - Henderson with 8 catches for 123 yards and a score.
But it was Colston would step up for the night of his career, despite a foot injury that was aggravated late in the second half when he landed on the outside of his foot after an incompletion. Colston was the target of 18 of Brees' 45 passes, catching nine for 131 yards and three scores. Colston and Henderson combined for three plays of 40 yards or more and 68% of Brees' yardage on the night.
The Chargers regained the lead with a short field goal attempt in the second quarter after being stopped at the Saint 2 yard line. That drive was aided by a defensive pass interference flag on Greer before the left the game, giving the Chargers a first down at the Saint 6. SS Roman Harper, who also had a huge night, broke up a third down fade pass to Antonio Gates, a play that is usually a guaranteed touchdown for the Chargers and their former power forward.
The Saints responded with a seven play, 80-yard drive, hitting Henderson for gains of 8 and 9 and then finding Colston wide open on the deep crossing route for a gain of 40. Three plays later on third and five, Colston made a one-handed catch at the back of the end zone with Chargers CB Marcus Gilchrist blanketing him in coverage.
The Chargers made a difficult choice on the next drive, when Rivers was sacked by Will Smith and a suddenly visible Saints pass rush, mostly through the turnstile that was Chargers LT Jared Gaither. With 4th and 11 from the Saints 36 and 2:58 left in the half, the Chargers opted to kick the long field goal, which Nick Novak missed wide left. That gave the ball to Brees at the Saint 45, which would usually be bad news. But on third down Brees would be sacked by DT Corey Liuget, who pancaked C Brian de la Puente on the way to the quarterback. The punt gave the ball back to the Chargers at the two minute warning, and four plays later Rivers off play action hit Meachem wide open down the middle of the field with White and Jenkins in tow for a 44-yard touchdown catch. The Chargers took a 17-14 lead into the locker room.
Meanwhile, Colston had a hurting left foot and TE Jimmy Graham had an ice-wrapped right ankle. With Lance Moore in street clothes, there was significant concern that the passing game would be down its two biggest weapons. Greg Camarillo looked good on his four catches, but the next option does was WR Joe Morgan, who dropped an easy first down quick slant in the third quarter, the only pass thrown his way. Allaying fears, Colston would turn in the biggest second half of his career.
The second half started disastrously for the Saints, with Brees' first pass attempt of the half behind Henderson, who reached back, batted the ball in the arm right to Quentin Jammer, who returned the pick to the Saint 25 after a shoelace tackle by Henderson. Three plays later, RB Ryan Mathews scooted around left tackle, avoiding LB Will Herring and posterizing Jenkins by leaping over him into the end zone.
Down by 10, Brees and the Saints hit their nadir of the night. After a timeout, in their own stadium, the Saints committed to straight false starts by LG Ben Grubbs and RT Zach Strief that turned 3rd and 10 into 3rd and 20. Brees fired incomplete for Colston and the Saints punted.
The Saints defense put the Chargers on their heels on the next drive, dropping Mathews for a four yard loss, then a delay of game forced 2nd and 19. But Mathews and Rivers converted the yardage in two downs. That drive would be killed by a Curtis Lofton sack of Rivers to force 3rd and 22 - the Chargers offensive line would be the cure for the Saints' anemic pass rush. The Saints produced five sacks on the day and numerous quarterback pressures. But when they couldn't get to Rivers, Brees' one-time understudy tossed 27/42 for 354 yards and two scores.
The Saints' next drive saw Mark Ingram pick up a 3rd and 1 by inches on a leap over the pile, the first rushing first down for the Saints with 3:59 left in the third quarter. Brees would start to feel heat from the Chargers pass rush, sacked on the next play for a six yard loss and hit hard, overthrowing Sproles over the middle. LB Demorrio Williams picked off that pass and returned it for a would-be touchdown, but the Saints were bailed out by the refs - a roughing-the-passer penalty on rookie DE Melvin Ingram for putting the crown of his helmet into Brees' chin.
With a fresh set of downs, Brees and Pierre Thomas worked together on the next four plays to pick up 52 yards, including a patented PT screen for a 36-yard gain down to the Charger 16. On the next play, Brees hit Colston at the goal line for the score near the end of the third quarter. That touchdown burned for the Chargers, who saw a 14-point swing as the result of Ingram's roughing penalty. Brees responded after that roughing call by completing his next 10 passes.
The Chargers punted after a three and out, and the Saints went for the lead. Taking over at their own 10, Brees picked up 10 with a pass to Sproles but was right back at the 10 after a holding penalty on RG Jahri Evans on the next play. Two catches by Greg Camarillo picked up 24 yards and the first down. A run up the middle by Thomas helped set up play action, which pulled Devery Henderson open in single coverage deep over the middle, running away from Jammer. Brees' pass was a little behind, causing Henderson to pull up and make the catch as he was being tackled for a 41-yard gain.
Three plays later on 3rd and 8 with 9:32 left in the game, Brees hit Colston over the middle to the Charger five and then Colston again in the end zone on the shallow fade, even when CB Antoine Cason was flagged for defensive pass interference. Colston's third score was his most impressive effort and put the Saints ahead 28-24 with 8:50 left in the game.
Rivers went back on the offensive, moving his team to the Saint 47 before Junior Galette sacked him and then Roman Harper intercepted him. Harper was the beneficiary of a deflected pass caused by Jenkins on a pass for Malcolm Floyd, when Jenkins could have easily been flagged for interference. Harper hauled in the carom and with an wedge escorting him, returned the pass 41 yards to the Charger 23.
Brees made his best throw of the night - stepping right away from the rush, he fired a bullet to Colston, running away from him in double coverage. Colston made the catch in traffic at the 5 for a nine yard gain. But the Saints offense couldn't capitalize on the excellent field position with a killshot score. A false start on TE David Thomas helped set up 3rd and 7, and Brees' pass was batted down by Liuget. The 26-yard field goal put the Saints up 31-24, an uneasy lead with Rivers on the other side. That would be Brees' final pass attempt with 3:04 left in the game.
But Rivers would be undone by his offensive line. Rivers moved the Chargers quickly to the Saint 45 on three easy passes before the two minute warning. On the next play, he was sacked by Cam Jordan even when the Chargers were flagged for holding. Rivers then hit TE Antonio Gates for a 28 yard gain, but he was flagged for offensive pass interference, making it 2nd and 27. Then, yet another holding call, this one on C Nick Hardwick, nullified a 23-yard pass to Floyd.
Facing 2nd an 37, DE Martez Wilson bailed out the Chargers with a five yard flag for hands-to-the-face on the pass rush, a penalty that carries an automatic first down. Once at the Saint 45, the Chargers now had a first down at their own 33. Rivers moved to the Saint 33 with four completions and with :28 left, but the Saints did a good job of forcing the receivers down in bounds and burning time and timeouts for the Chargers. Rivers fired too far for Gates open down the middle, then Martez Wilson shoved Rivers as he threw to force another incompletion.
With LT Omar Gaither clearly hurt but without any timeouts, Rivers dropped back to pass again. Wilson zoomed around a limping Gaither and batted the ball out of Rivers' hand. Wilson fell on the fumble to secure the win and the rest of the Saints defense fell on him to celebrate.
After the game, TE Jimmy Graham was in a walking boot. Graham was not a presence in the second half, though he did tough his way through pain to play. The Saints have a bye week to get Moore, Graham, and Greer all fully healthy before they head on a two-game road trip to Tampa Bay and Denver. The Saints don't play at home again until November 5, when they host the Eagles on Monday Night Football.
The Saints improved to 1-4, along with the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Bucs who also only have one win each. The 5-0 Falcons have all but wrapped up the division.