NEW ORLEANS -- It's hard to believe, but the last time New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees stepped inside Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego to participate in an NFL football game, he had a lightning bolt on his helmet and was buried under a pile, his throwing shoulder in tatters and his career hanging in the balance.
It was the end of an otherwise forgettable 2005 season. Brees, the Chargers' starting quarterback and one-time Pro Bowler, was sacked by Denver Broncos safety John Lynch and sustained a torn right labrum, which made it much easier and even logical for the Chargers to officially usher in the Philip Rivers era.
On Sunday, Brees, now 37, will return to San Diego with the 0-3 Saints to face the 1-2 Chargers in San Diego for the first time since his career-altering injury. That's eight Pro Bowls, six NFL-leading passing seasons and one Lombardi Trophy ago.
"I have great memories there," said Brees, one of the few bright spots during the Saints' second consecutive 0-3 start. "I had a chance to play with a lot of great players and with a lot of great coaches who impacted my career. They've been mentors for me and just great people.
"It's kind of weird that this is the first time we're going back there in 11 seasons. That's pretty wild. It's the only place we have not been to yet as a Saints team since I've ben here. The bottom line is I'm trying to get all that stuff out of the way, the sentimental stuff, so that when game day comes, it's all about what we have to do to win the game."
Rivers, who assumed the quarterback reins from Brees in 2006, said the two remain good friends despite their fiery competition as NFL newbies. Brees was drafted in the second round of the 2001 NFL draft and Rivers, now 34, was selected in the first round in 2004.
"It's crazy to think that he and I are still playing, and we were both on the same team and we've done a lot of great things," Rivers said. "As that season was winding down in '05, I knew one of us was not going to be here. I didn't think I could handle watching a whole other year. (He suffered) a terrible injury, but he fought back in Drew Brees fashion with the toughness he showed."
The Chargers came within a minute of being 2-1 last week, but they allowed a 63-yard touchdown pass to T.Y. Hilton to lose 26-22 at Indianapolis. The Saints, who lost their first two games to Oakland and the New York Giants by a combined total of four points, allowed five consecutive touchdown drives in falling at home to the Atlanta Falcons 45-32 on Monday night.
Both teams have been ravaged by injuries. For San Diego, wide receiver Keenan Allen and running back Danny Woodhead each suffered season-ending ACL injuries, and linebacker Manti Te'o was placed on IR this week after tearing his Achilles against the Colts.
"It's not just us," San Diego coach Mike McCoy said. "Look at the entire league with injuries. I wish I had an answer. We do everything -- strength and conditioning, preventative (measures). Every team does. Because you have a certain number of injuries this year, well, if you had the same program last year that all these guys went through, and then all of a sudden something happens this year, are you doing something wrong? Who's to say?"
The Saints were down four defensive starters last week against the Falcons, but linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (quad) and Kenny Vaccaro (ankle) might return for San Diego.
"One of the tricks is managing the roster right now," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "Ultimately, when you start working with moving parts, where you have some backups playing more, there is an attrition that can happen."
Brees has beaten the Chargers three times -- once in London and twice in New Orleans -- and he is looking for his third consecutive passing game of 400 yards and three touchdown passes against an AFC opponent. Brees leads the NFL with 1,062 passing yards and is tied for the NFL lead with eight touchdown passes.
Rivers, meanwhile, has thrown for 695 yards and five touchdowns in two career starts against the Saints.