New Orleans' maligned defense shut out the Chargers for the final 27 minutes as the Saints rallied from a 24-14, second-half deficit to win 31-24 on Sunday night at the Superdome. (US Presswire)

New Orleans came oh-so-close to slipping to 0-5, but QB Drew Brees threw four touchdowns passes and the maligned defense shut out the Chargers for the final 27 minutes as the Saints rallied from a 24-14, second-half deficit to win 31-24 on Sunday night at the Superdome.
Brees got a huge landmark out of the way early, breaking Johnny Unitas’ 52-year-old record for touchdown passes in consecutive games with his 48th in a row to a wide open Devery Henderson in the first quarter. The win did not come nearly as easily. San Diego (3-2) had 288 yards by halftime, cruising through the last-place defense in the league on the ground and over the top with several long completions.

But in the fourth quarter, the Saints picked off QB Philip Rivers once, sacked him three times and forced him to fumble, turning everything around as suspended coach Sean Payton watched from a booth in the dome. He was in attendance after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell granted Brees' personal request.
When the game turned: The Saints appeared cooked when Brees’ pass over the middle was picked off and returned for an TD by LB Demorrio Williams to give the Chargers a 30-14 lead late in the third quarter. But Melvin Ingram was flagged -- legitimately -- for roughing the passer after driving his helmet into Brees’ chin, negating the play.

The Saints responded by going 68 yards in five plays for a TD, forcing a three-and-out and driving 90 yards in 10 plays for the go-ahead TD to save their season. It was like suspended coach Sean Payton flipped a switch as he watched from an undisclosed booth in the Superdome. On the Chargers’ next possession, Roman Harper picked off a pass for a rare turnover forced by the defense. Then Martez Wilson stripped Rivers and fell on the ball to end San Diego’s final threat.
Highlight moments: Brees’ record-setting pass to Henderson will be the takeaway. Henderson was wide open for the 40-yard score in the first quarter, getting the record out of the way early and freeing the Saints to simply worry about winning the game… Harper’s 41-yard return of his interception was huge, coming off a deflection by fellow safety Malcolm Jenkins. It was one of the few big plays a Saints defender has made all year… RB Pierre Thomas’ 36-yard gain on a screen, a New Orleans signature play, gave the offense its old strut and set up the score that closed the gap to 24-21.
Top-shelf performances:

  • Brees -- 29 of 45 for 370 yards and 4 TDs

  • Colston -- 9 catches for 131 yards and 3 TDs

  • Henderson -- 8 catches for 123 yards and 1 TD

  • Rivers -- 27 of 42 for 354 yards and 2 TDs

  • San Diego WR Malcolm Floyd -- 5 catches for 108 yards

What Brees said about breaking Unitas' record:
“I guess you really couldn’t have written a better script than tonight, to get the win and the record in the fashion that we did.”
Brees on Payton, GM Mickey Loomis and assistant Joe Vitt being in the building for the game at his request:
“He (Payton) gave us some good mojo, for sure. I’m so glad he could be here, and Mickey (Loomis) and Joe (Vitt). I love my coach. It’s special they could be a part of this night. I’m overcome with emotion right now.”
Saints OT Zach Strief on the significance of the win:
“This game gives guys a lot of confidence going into a bye week. We’re going to be rested up and we’re going to make a run and we’re going to find a way to win these games at the end. We’ve been on rolls before.”
San Diego coach Norv Turner on Ingram’s roughing-the-passer penalty:
“Obviously it was a critical play. You can’t make those kinds of errors, and we will learn from them.”
Numbers you should know: Harper’s interception was the first by a New Orleans starting safety since 2010. He and Jenkins had goose eggs for all of 2011 and the first four games of 2012. … The Saints are 10-1 in 11 prime time regular-season games at home since 2008. … Colston broke the Saints record for touchdown receptions, pushing his total to 42 with three scores, passing Joe Horn’s 40.
Injury updates: Saints CB Jabari Greer left with a groin injury in the first half and did not return. TE Jimmy Graham injured his right ankle in the first half and got it re-taped but was ineffective the rest of the way, finishing with one reception for four yards. The Chargers did not report any injuries.
Going forward: The Saints go into their bye re-energized at 1-4 instead of 0-5. Despite their strong fourth-quarter performance, they have big problems to fix on defense and pretty much every aspect of the team except for the passing game, but the season is not over. It would have been with a loss. San Diego plays host to Denver in a pivotal AFC West game. If the Chargers file this disappointing loss pretty quickly, they can take control of their division by beating the Broncos next Monday night.

Follow Saints reporter Guerry Smith on Twitter @CBSSaints