Drew Brees hit Devery Henderson for a 40-yard touchdown in the first quarter, breaking Johnny Unitas' record for most consecutive games with a touchdown pass. (Harry How/Getty Images)
"It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again ..."
James Earl Jones' character, Terrence Mann, was referencing baseball when he spoke those words at the climax of Field of Dreams, but they fit a particularly wistful Sunday night for the New Orleans Saints. With Sean Payton looking on and a desperate home crowd celebrating like its team was wrapping up an NFC title, the Saints corralled a cathartic 31-24 victory over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday night.
"It's just one win," interim Saints coach Aaron Kromer said, "but it's a monkey off our back."
The visiting Chargers had the Saints on the ropes, down 24-14 and facing the unthinkable prospect of an 0-5 start to the regular season -- a record that would all but eliminate New Orleans from playoff contention on the first weekend of October.
Then, almost as if out of nowhere, the Saints came back to life.
Drew Brees hit Marques Colston for a TD to make it 24-21, then found him again to put the Saints ahead, 28-24. Suddenly, with suspended coach Sean Payton smiling from the owner's box, the Superdome was alive.
"Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints!"
Do you remember this? Remember what it was like, before the bounty scandal and commissioner Roger Goodell's stern reaction to it left the Saints scrambling just to get ready for the 2012 season?
The Saints have been one of the league's elite franchise for a season. And, if only for a night, they found their magic formula again.
"It gave us some good mojo, for sure," Brees, who Sunday night broke Johnny Unitas' record for most consecutive games with a passing TD, said of having Payton in attendance for the first time this season. "I love my coach -- I love my coach. I'm so glad he could be here. ... just overcome with emotion right now."
For most of the evening, Payton's presence (as well as those of suspended GM Mickey Loomis and eventual interim coach Joe Vitt) seemed to serve as more of a representation of a franchise in a spiral of mistakes than one of inspiration.
New Orleans trailed 17-14 at halftime, and the third quarter opened with Brees throwing an interception to Quentin Jammer. San Diego quickly turned that play into a touchdown, taking a 24-14 lead. New Orleans responded by stalling out on its next possession, thanks to back-to-back false starts -- a nearly unthinkable occurrence for a team playing in front of its home crowd.
The Chargers got the ball back again, seemingly ready to bury New Orleans' hopes for Sunday and the 2012 season.
Instead, the Saints' defense, an Achilles' heel all season, came up with a stop. And then another. After the Brees-Colston combination put New Orleans on top, Roman Harper picked off a deflected Philip Rivers pass for his first interception since Week 2 of 2010.
Then, after the Chargers overcame a comedy of penalties to get to the New Orleans' 33 with 14 seconds left, down by seven, Martez Wilson blew past a clearly hobbled Jared Gaither for a strip-sack of Philip Rivers. Wilson recovered the fumble, too, clinching New Orleans' first victory.
"We finally put together a complete team effort, for all four quarters," Brees said. "I can't say enough about the guys in our locker room, obviously we've been through a lot already. Hopefully, this is the first of many wins."
This is not a triumph-over-tragedy tale, nor is it one of heroism. The Saints made a litany of errors, some serious, as a franchise over the past several seasons. They are paying for them as a result -- Payton's casual presence at Sunday's game, far away from his team's sideline, was a reminder of that.
But things were never expected to regress this much, even with Payton, Loomis and Vitt temporarily banished.
The Saints' defense was not expected to dominate opponents and the run game carried major questions into the season, but Brees' steadying presence on offense, combined with a massive amount of talent around him at the skill positions, was supposed to keep them in line.
It took until the third quarter of Week 5 for that to happen.
"I stood up here for four weeks and talked about this team staying together," Kromer said in his postgame press conference. "(We) brought our climbing shoes to climb that mountain, and we did it tonight."
On his most recent record-setting night, Brees completed 29 of 45 passes for 370 yards and four touchdowns, three of them to Colston. He erased one mistake by helping the Saints rally after his third-quarter interception; the officials wiped out another, flagging San Diego for a roughing-the-passer penalty on a play that would have resulted in a Chargers defensive touchdown.
Maybe that was the break the Saints needed in a season that previously had been one punch to the gut after the next.
New Orleans still finds itself tied for last place in the NFC South at 1-4, an intimidating four games back of the 5-0 Falcons. There are still tons and tons of kinks for the Saints to work out, as well, despite Sunday night's rally.