For one memorable night, at least, the entire beleaguered Saints organization and their frustrated fans could celebrate a special moment in football history and recapture that winning feeling that had become commonplace before an offseason overshadowed by the NFL's bounty investigation.
"I guess you really couldn't have written a better script for tonight," Brees said. "To break the record, to get the win, and the fashion in which we won - really a complete team effort all the way around.
"The amazing thing about a record like this is it spans over the course of four seasons and hopefully we can keep it going to for a while," Brees said. "There are so many people that are a part of this."
Brees' 40-yard pass to Devery Henderson eclipsed the mark of 47 consecutive games with a touchdown pass Unitas set from 1956-60.
Brees said he was honored and humbled to break a record by a player he saw as a pioneer who stood for "everything that's great in this league."
At Brees' request, the NFL allowed 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 Brees over 30,000 yards in his 100th game as a Saint.
Afterward, Brees took an elevator near the Saints' locker room up to the Superdome's suite level to share a few moments with Payton, Loomis and Vitt.
"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."
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."
"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."
The first late turnover 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 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 to seal the victory.
The Saints' defense, which entered the game ranked least in the league, had a hand in the victory not only with the turnovers but five sacks.
"You really have to credit our defense getting pressure on the quarterback," Interim head coach Aaron Kromer said. "That's what made a difference in the game."
After his record-setting completion, Brees trotted to the end zone to hug Henderson. 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 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 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.
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 run for a fourth-straight playoff appearance when Vitt and Loomis are back.
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' 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 the 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. ... 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. ... 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. ... Saints TE Jimmy Graham hurt his right ankle in the first half. He returned to the game but was not a factor. ... Saints LB Curtis Lofton had a game-high 10 tackles including a sack.
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press