NEW ORLEANS -- For New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, the first four losses of the season had been an unmitigated disaster. But at least for one night, the future Hall of Famer was once again on top of the NFL world.
Chasing Johnny Unitas and NFL history, Brees threw four touchdown passes, three to Marques Colston, in the Saints' 31-24 comeback victory over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday night. It was the 48th consecutive game in which Brees has thrown a scoring pass, breaking Unitas' 52-year-old record.
Suspended Saints coach Sean Payton watched the drama from a private suite in the Superdome, and he took in a furious second-half comeback by New Orleans.
The Saints (1-4) trailed 24-14 early in the second half after Chargers running back Ryan Mathews scored from 13 yards on a sweep around left end.
The biggest play of the game came late in the third quarter. San Diego linebacker Demorrio Williams intercepted a Brees pass and returned it 27 yards for an apparent touchdown. However, linebacker Melvin Ingram, who pressured Brees, was called for a late hit, negating the interception and score.
Given the reprieve, Brees caught fire, completing his next three passes for 59 yards, including a 16-yard post to Colston for a touchdown, drawing the Saints within 24-21.
After a punt by San Diego (3-2), Brees took the Saints 90 yards in nine plays to give his team a 28-24 lead. Brees was 6-for-6 for 89 yards on the drive. He got the go-ahead score with a 5-yard flip to Colston, who was interfered with by Antoine Cason but still held on to the ball.
After the roughing penalty, Brees completed his next 10 passes for 159 yards and two scores.
Garrett Hartley's 26-yard field with 2:56 left extended the Saints' lead to 31-24.
Philip Rivers nearly pulled off a comeback drive of his own, but Martez Wilson stripped Rivers with a blindside sack, forcing and recovering a fumble at the Saints' 42 with 14 second left.
On the Chargers' second possession of the game, Rivers connected with Malcom Floyd for completions of 39 and 32 yards during a 91-yard drive that culminated in a perfect 15-yard scoring pass to ex-Saint Robert Meachem, who beat safety Malcolm Jenkins to make the catch for a 7-0 San Diego lead. After the score, Jenkins punched ball out of the hands of his former teammate and drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Brees made history on the Saints' next possession. On third-and-6 from the Chargers' 40, he avoided a blitz by stepping up in the pocket and saw Devery Henderson streaking behind cornerback Quentin Jammer. Henderson caught the ball at the 10 and strolled into the end zone, tying the game 7-7.
Brees celebrated by racing to the end zone to congratulate Henderson, who handed him the ball. Brees raised the ball to the crowd with his right hand, and NBC's cameras caught Payton applauding the achievement.
The Chargers responded with a 20-yard field goal by Nick Novak with 9:58 left in the second quarter to take a 10-7 lead. But Brees took the Saints on a seven-play, 80-yard drive, capping the drive with a 19-yard pass to Colston, who made a one-handed grab in the back of the end zone for 14-10 lead.
On the Chargers' next possession, Saints defensive end Will Smith broke through to sack Rivers on third down to force a 55-yard field goal attempt by Novak, who missed it wide left.
But after the Saints failed to take advantage of excellent field position, Rivers took the Chargers 86 yards in just four plays to retake the lead, 17-14, just 36 seconds before halftime. Rivers got the payoff on a 44-yard strike to Meachem, who was wide open behind cornerback Corey White.
The Chargers rolled up 288 yards of total offense and 15 first down in the first half.
NOTES: Payton, suspended for the entire 2012 season because of the Bountygate scandal, was given permission by the NFL to attend the game because of Brees' pursuit of Unitas' record. ... Mathews responded well to the pressure being applied by Jackie Battle for playing time in the Chargers' backfield. Mathews gashed the Saints on several stretch plays and gained 53 yards on six rushes in the first half. He finished with 80 yards on 12 carries. ... Meachem, who signed as an unrestricted free agent during the offseason, had been held without a catch in two of the Chargers' first three games, but he broke out with two touchdown receptions in the first half against his former team.