NEW ORLEANS — Drew Brees did what he had to do Sunday night.
And this time, he got help.
The much-beleaguered New Orleans defense held San Diego to only one second-half touchdown and only 139 yards in the final 30 minutes, helping the Saints pick up their first win of the season with a 31-24 victory over the Chargers.
“We just needed to get a win to prove to ourselves and to everyone else that we’re still a good team and we can still play football,” Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said.
The stopped hearts of those Saints fans in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome were finally beating fully with 14 seconds to play when Martez Wilson came up with a sack-strip of San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers on the Saints’ 33.
Wilson fell on the loose ball, making amends for a hands-to-the-face penalty that gave San Diego life on a second-and-37 play nearly a minute earlier.
“The play slowed down,” Wilson said of his only tackle of the night. “I knew the tackle was getting tired as well. It was a long two-minute drive. I just used my speed to get around him and the quarterback was right there. It was a great play.”
Brees finished the game with 370 yards passing and four touchdowns, the first of which set an NFL record, in a duel with his former understudy.
The Saints allowed San Diego’s Rivers to complete 27 of 42 passes for 354 yards and two touchdowns. But they sacked him five times and pressured him countless other times
Marques Colston finished with 131 yards and three touchdowns on nine catches while Devery Henderson added 123 and a touchdown on eight catches, becoming the first two Saints players to ever have at least eight catches, 120 yards and a touchdown in the same game.
New Orleans finished with 404 total yards and was 9 of 16 on third down in spite of compiling only 53 yards rushing.
“There’s a lot of stuff to fix. That was far from a perfect game. But the confidence you can take out of it is we can finish. We can find ways to finish and that’ll be the focus the rest of the season is closing these games out.
To see the game’s opening, however, was to think the Saints and Chargers were going to be in for a high-scoring affair.
After picking up a stop on defense to open the game, the Saints weren’t so fortunate on their second defensive series. After Courtney Roby downed a punt at the San Diego 9, Philip Rivers turned the field immediately.
First, he hit a 39-yard pass to Malcolm Floyd after the receiver beat Saints cornerback Jabari Greer off the ball. Then, three plays later on third-and-nine, Floyd beat cornerback Patrick Robinson for a 32-yard gain. And finally, Rivers connected with former Saint Robert Meachem for a 15-yard touchdown in front of Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins.
Nearly 10 minutes into the game, San Diego led 7-0.
Four minutes later, Brees matched Rivers and more, guiding the Saints 80 yards in nine plays and capping it with a historic 40-yard touchdown pass to Devery Henderson. The score tied the game at 7 and set an NFL record for Brees, giving him a touchdown pass in 48 consecutive games. The old record of 47 was held by Johnny Unitas and stood for 52 years.
“Pretty fitting that a guy who’s been here and been through so much with this organization (caught the pass),” Brees said.
After both defense held, it was time for the offense to come back alive. The Chargers drove 63 yards in eight plays – aided by a 25-yard pass interference call - but were stoned on two straight plays from the Saints’ 2-yard line, including a pass breakup in the end zone by Roman Harper. Nick Novak’s 20-yard field goal gave San Diego a 10-7 lead with 9:58 to go in the half.
But just like after the first San Diego score, the Saints answered, using a 40-yard completion from Brees to Marques Colston to get things going. Three plays later, Colston had his touchdown for the night after Brees dropped a 19-yard pass into his hands with Chargers cornerback Marcus Gilchrist in perfect coverage.
The Saints, for the first time of the night, owned a lead at 14-10.
It didn’t last long. The Chargers took a 17-14 lead when Meachem caught his second touchdown pass of the night, getting behind New Orleans rookie cornerback Corey White, who had no help behind him, for a 44-yard scoring strike.
San Diego then took advantage of the first turnover the night to push its lead to 24-14 less than three minutes into the second half. A pass from Brees to Henderson wasn’t accurate and Chargers defensive back Quentin Jammer caught the tip. Three plays later, Ryan Mathews dove into the end zone for a touchdown.
“I was in the right place at the right time on that one interception,” Jammer said. “I felt that was a big play, to make the play to give us the momentum early.”
New Orleans cut back into San Diego’s lead late in the third quarter. Brees threw his second interception of the night but it came back when San Diego’s Melvin Ingram was called for roughing the passer. The play seemingly ignited the offense on the drive. A 36-yard screen pass to Pierre Thomas was followed by Colston’s second touchdown of the night, a 16-yarder in front of the Chargers’ Eric Weddle.
With a quarter to play, the Saints were still down, but at 24-21, the game was again in range.
A defensive stop led, once more, to a Saints lead. In spite of a first-and-20 from their own 10, the Saints used a 13-yard completion to Greg Camarillo to get things going. And then on third-and-eight from the San Diego 14, Brees hit Colston for a 9-yard pass. Seconds later, Colston had his third touchdown of the night, handing New Orleans a 28-24 lead with just 8:50 to play.
Garrett Hartley’s 26-yard field goal provided the final points of the night and set up the frenetic finish.
And now the Saints go into the bye week at 1-4 instead of 0-5 and the season all but over.
“We got this first win, it’s the best we’ve played, we’ve steadily improved each and every week, even though some of those earlier games didn’t result in wins,” Brees said. “We feel like we’re progressing the way we want to. Now you feel like you’re rolling and you just want to go right back to work and go get another one.”