Drew Brees hopes his quest to break yet another prestigious, longtime passing record will also snap the Saints' four-game, season-opening losing streak.
Perhaps the presence of suspended coach Sean Payton, who has been permitted to watch from a private area in the Superdome, might help in some intangible way.
Brees, who already owns NFL records for single-season yards passing (5,476) and single-season completion percentage (71.2), will try to throw at least one touchdown pass in his 48th straight regular season game when the Saints (0-4) host the San Diego Chargers (3-1) on Sunday night.
If Brees succeeds, he will eclipse the mark that Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas set from 1956-60. The Saints' quarterback, who considers himself a student of NFL history, called the opportunity to surpass Unitas "tremendous," then added, "at the same time, I need to focus on my job and whatever it takes to help us win, and then if we break the record in the process then that's great."
Earlier in the week, Brees emailed NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, asking him to allow Payton (suspended a full season), general manager Mickey Loomis (docked eight games) and assistant head coach Joe Vitt (docked six games) to attend the game even as they serve suspensions in connection with the league's bounty investigation of the Saints.
Goodell agreed, though it remains to be seen who will in fact decide to show up Sunday night.
If any of the three men attend, they won't be permitted to have contact with the team, though Saints players are bound to find out who's in the building.
The situation is hardly ideal for the Chargers, at least in the minds of oddsmakers, who have listed the Saints as 3-point favorites.
The logic behind that could lie in the fact that the Saints, despite their last-ranked defense, have been close in every game. They fell by eight points in each of their first two games against Washington and Carolina, then by three points in overtime to Kansas City before falling by a single point in Green Bay — only after missing a makeable go-ahead field goal in the final minutes.
Now New Orleans is about as desperate as can be and playing at home on national television.
"We're familiar with New Orleans and their players. We know what they've accomplished over the last several years as an entire organization and football team," San Diego coach Norv Turner said. "You put the tape on and you're not watching the score. You're watching the players and the plays. ... It gets you ready and gets your attention real fast. The explosiveness on offense and the things they do — they're extremely well-coached."
Brees passed for 446 yards and three TDs in Green Bay last week, and New Orleans offense, a league leader since Payton took over in 2006, currently ranks eighth in the NFL, averaging a little more than 400 yards per game with offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. calling the plays.
Carmichael also called plays for most of last season, when the Saints not only led the NFL in net offensive yards but set an NFL single-season record in that category with 7,474. Still, Payton was around to oversee matters last year, and his absence has overshadowed the Saints' 2012 season, at least in terms of public perception. Brees said that's no longer the case inside team headquarters.
"The offseason talk for us is in the past. It's old news," Brees said. "It's not something we even think about. We think about our preparation and trying to get that first win, trying to get a little better each week."
To win, New Orleans may have to figure out how to play better defensively or risk watching Philip Rivers light up the scoreboard with the help of Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates, receiver Malcom Floyd and maybe even former Saints receiver Robert Meachem, a deep threat who joined the Chargers in free agency.
Meachem is off to a slow start with his new club, a departure from the experiences of Brees and all-purpose back Darren Sproles, who have been prolific from the time they arrived in New Orleans form San Diego.
"He was close on three or four big plays," Turner said of Meachem, who has six catches for 92 yards. "We had one in Tennessee where he was running completely free. It was going to be a 40-yard touchdown and the protection broke down. We just couldn't get him the ball. I see it every day in practice. I see him getting better and better and Philip getting more and more comfortable with Robert — Robert getting more comfortable with us."
In 2007, the Saints also opened 0-4, then showed up at practice to find that Payton had rigged a wagon with instruments in the corner of their indoor practice field. The message was, essentially that the bandwagon was empty, but the Saints were still there, still believing. They won four straight before fading in a 7-9 finish.
There is no empty bandwagon this year, but Brees did give a recent speech in which he asked his teammates to figuratively put their climbing shoes on.
"We've been in this situation before. We started off 0-4 and then we rattled off four in a row. There's no doubt that we can do that," Brees said. "Listen, we've been in situations here where we've won 13 in a row, nine in a row, ten in a row. We can get on a roll. We can get on a streak and in order to get on a streak you have to win the first one. So that's what we're focused on doing."
Rivers said Brees is right to take that approach, which is exactly why the Chargers cannot afford to underestimate New Orleans.
"The Saints could be 4-0," Rivers asserted. "There's such a fine line between winning and losing in this league and it's a week-to-week deal."
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