Drew Brees's latest assault on a prestigious NFL passing record lifted the embattled New Orleans Saints to their first victory of the season.
Brees broke a half-century-old record by throwing a touchdown pass in his 48th straight game, and the Saints defeated the San Diego Chargers 31-24 on Sunday night.
Brees's 40-yard pass to Devery Henderson eclipsed the mark of 47 consecutive games with a touchdown pass set by Johnny Unitas from 1956-60.
The Top 5
48 — Drew Brees, New Orleans, Oct. 18, 2009-present
47 — Johnny Unitas, Baltimore Colts, Dec. 9, 1956-Dec. 4, 1960
36 — Tom Brady, New England, Sept. 12, 2010-present
36 — Brett Favre, Green Bay, Nov. 4, 2002-Nov. 29, 2004
30 — Dan Marino, Miami, Nov. 10, 1985-Nov. 22, 1987
"First of all it's a team record, not an individual record. So many people were responsible for this, coaches and people in the organization," Brees said. "Certainly the man who held this record stands for everything great in this league. It couldn't have happened in a better way."
Brees finished with four touchdown passes, including three 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's son, Joe, saw Brees pass for 370 yards.
"It gave us a good mojo for sure," Brees said of Payton's presence. "I love my coach, so glad he could be here. Mickey and Joe Vitt as well. It is special for our team, special they could be a part of this record.
"We finally put together a great team effort for all four quarters. I can't say enough for the guys in our locker room," Brees said. "We have been through a lot together. Hopefully this will lead to more wins."
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the one who suspended Saints personnel in the bounty matter but also granted Brees's request for Payton, Vitt and Loomis to attend the game, chimed in on social media to offer his own congratulations.
On his Twitter page, Goodell wrote: "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 Saint Robert Meachem, but had two costly turnovers in the final quarter.
The first was 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 25-yard field goal. San Diego (3-2) still had a chance to tie in the final minute when defensive end Martez Wilson stripped Rivers and recovered the fumble to seal the victory.
After his record-setting completion, Brees galloped to the end zone to hug Henderson. The rest of New Orleans' offence 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 scoring pass capped an 80-yard drive in which Brees completed all three of his third-down passes, including the touchdown connection with Henderson.
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 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's interception return for a touchdown. The touchdown 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.
Vitt is expected to take over the coaching staff when his six-game suspension ends. Loomis was docked eight games. As the Saints headed into their bye week, the desperately needed win offered hope, however faint, of making a playoff run when Vitt and Loomis are back.
Rivers staked San Diego to a 7-0 lead with a 15-yard touchdown pass over the middle to Meachem, marking the former Saints receiver's first touchdown since signing with the Chargers as a free agent last winter.
San Diego moved ahead 10-7 on Nick Novak's 20-yard field goal, a disappointment for the Chargers after Saints cornerback Jabari Greer was called for pass interference against Malcom Floyd at the New Orleans 6. Novak, filling in for injured kicker Nate Kaeding, later missed a 55-yard attempt.
Colston made his first touchdown catch on a pass Brees lofted perfectly to the back of the end zone. That gave New Orleans a 14-10 lead that lasted until Meachem's 44-yard touchdown catch in the final minute of the half.
San Diego went ahead 24-14 on Ryan Mathews's 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.
Greer left the game with what team officials said was a hip injury. He was hurt late in the second quarter and did not return.