Drew Brees threw a long touchdown pass to take ownership of another prestigious NFL passing record, hit three more scoring passes in an emotional victory, and then spoke hopefully of salvaging a season that had looked lost after defeats in New Orleans' first four games.
"While you never want to start 0-4, if you do, you've got the right guys in the locker room to turn that thing around and certainly not turn on each other," Brees said. "We understand we have a little bit of a mountain to climb here. ... We got the right people in the locker room, and that makes you feel you always have a chance."
Brees broke Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas' half-century-old record by throwing a touchdown pass in his 48th straight game, and the Saints beat the San Diego Chargers, Brees' former team, 31-24 on Sunday night.
"I guess you really couldn't have written a better script," Brees said.
Brees' 40-yard pass to Devery Henderson eclipsed the mark of 47 consecutive games with a touchdown pass Unitas set from 1956-60.
Brees' last three scoring passes went to Marques Colston, giving the seventh-year receiver a franchise-record 52 TD catches with the Saints (1-4).
At Brees' request, the NFL allowed head coach Sean Payton, assistant head coach Joe Vitt and general manager Mickey Loomis - all serving various suspensions in connection with the NFL's bounty investigation - to attend the game. They and Unitas' son, Joe, saw Brees pass for 370 yards, enough to put him over 30,000 yards passing as a Saint in his 100th game with the club.
Afterward, Brees took an elevator to the Superdome's suite level to share a few moments with Payton, Loomis and Vitt.
"It was great to see him. He looks good," Brees said of Payton. "Obviously, I felt like this night wouldn't have been the same without him in the building. And Mickey Loomis and Joe Vitt - to have all those guys (here) and to spend a little time with them, to share in the historic moment, was special."
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the one who suspended Saints personnel in the bounty matter but also granted Brees' request for Payton, Vitt and Loomis to attend the game, chimed in on his Twitter page shortly after the record fell, writing, "Congrats to (at)drewbrees & his teammates on breaking Unitas' record. Amazing accomplishment by great QB & leader. We're proud of you, Drew."
Philip Rivers passed for 354 yards and two touchdowns to former Saints receiver Robert Meachem, but had two costly turnovers in the final quarter.
"I can't tell you how tough it is to lose a game like this," Rivers said. "We were right there. We were up by 10 points and just didn't get it done. We have a great team, a championship-caliber team. But we have to win close games like this."
Rivers' first turnover came on Roman Harper's interception and 41-yard return on a pass tipped by fellow safety Malcolm Jenkins. That set up the Saints' final score on Garrett Hartley's field goal. San Diego (3-2) still had a chance to tie in the final minute until defensive end Martez Wilson stripped Rivers and recovered the fumble.
The Saints' defense, which entered the game ranked last in the league, had a hand in the victory not only with the turnovers but five sacks.
"I've stood up here for four weeks and talked about the team staying together," Interim head coach Aaron Kromer said. "We knew we were close to getting a win."
After his record-setting completion, Brees trotted to the end zone to greet Henderson, who gave him the ball. The rest of New Orleans' offense pursued and swarmed around Brees in celebration while the jubilant Superdome crowd roared and then howled an elongated, "Dreeeeeeew!"
Brees took the game ball to the sideline, where he continued to accept congratulations. The record-setting scoring pass capped an 80-yard drive in which Brees completed all three of his third-down passes, including the touchdown.
Colston finished with nine catches for 131 yards, while Henderson had eight catches for 123 yards.
Colston's second TD late in the third quarter eclipsed a franchise mark of 50 set by Joe Horn in 2006 and pulled the Saints back within a field goal shortly after the Chargers appeared to have gone ahead 31-14 on Demorrio Williams' interception return for a touchdown. Williams' TD was nullified, however, by Melvin Ingram's late hit on Brees' chin, which drew a roughing-the-passer flag and extended what wound up to be an 87-yard scoring drive.
"Obviously it was a critical play," Chargers coach Norv Turner said. "You can't make those kinds of errors, and we will learn from them."
Meachem's 44-yard touchdown catch in the final minute of the half gave San Diego a 17-14 lead.
San Diego went ahead 24-14 on Ryan Mathews' 13-yard run around left end, capping a three-play drive that started when Henderson tipped a pass that Brees threw behind him, allowing Quentin Jammer to intercept it and give San Diego the ball on the New Orleans 25.
Notes: Brees set his latest passing record against the team that drafted him in 2001 and for which he played his first five seasons in the NFL before coming to New Orleans in 2006. ... The last game Brees played without throwing for a TD was Oct. 4, 2009, in a victory over the New York Jets. ... Chargers PK Nick Novak, who was filling in for the injured Nate Kaeding, made a 20-yard field goal but missed a 55-yard attempt in the second quarter. ... Saints CB Jabari Greer left the game with what team officials said was a hip injury.