Published: Oct 07, 2012 11:07 PM EDT
Updated: Oct 08, 2012 6:31 AM EDT

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Drew Brees passed for a touchdown in an NFL-record 48th straight game, then watched as ex-teammate Robert Meachem caught his first two touchdown passes of the season to help the San Diego Chargers take a 24-21 lead over the New Orleans Saints after three quarters on Sunday night.

Brees' 40-yard touchdown pass to Devery Henderson tied the game at 7 late in the first quarter and surpassed the mark of 47 straight games with a touchdown that Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas set between 1956 and 1960.

After the completion, Brees galloped to the end zone to hug Henderson. The rest of New Orleans' offense pursued and swarmed around Brees in celebration.

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 connection with Henderson.

Brees had three scoring passes by the third quarter, including two to Marques Colston, giving the Saints' seventh-year receiver a franchise-record 51 touchdown catches. Colston's second TD late in the third quarter eclipsed a 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 an 87-yard Saints scoring drive.

At Brees' request, the NFL allowed head coach Sean 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, so long as they did not have contact with the team. It was the first time this season any of them were in attendance for a Saints game and they looked on from the suite level of the Superdome.

Unitas' son, Joe, was in attendance after sending a letter to Saints headquarters during the past week in which he wished Brees the best in the Saints quarterback's attempt to break his father's 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 social media to offer his own congratulations to Brees.

On his Twitter page, Goodell wrote: "Congrats to (at)drewbrees & his teammates on breaking Unitas' record. Amazing accomplishment by great QB & leader. We're proud of you, Drew."

Vitt is expected to take over the coaching staff when his six-game suspension ends. Loomis was docked eight games. With the Saints coming into the game at 0-4, the Saints desperately needed to win to salvage some faint hope of a playoff berth before Vitt and Loomis resumed their work.

Philip Rivers staked San Diego to a 7-0 lead with a 15-yard touchdown pass over the middle to Meachem, marking the former Saints receiver's first touchdown since signing with the Chargers as a free agent last winter.

Meachem snatched the ball from Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins in tight coverage, capping a drive that included completions of 39 and 32 yards from Rivers to Malcom Floyd.

San Diego moved ahead 10-7 on Nick Novak's 20-yard field goal, a disappointment for the Chargers after Saints cornerback Jabari Greer was called for pass interference against Floyd, resulting in a 25-yard penalty that gave San Diego a first down at the New Orleans 6-yard line. Novak, filling in for injured kicker Nate Kaeding, later missed a 55-yard attempt.

Rivers was 17 of 26 for 245 yards and two TDs through three quarters. Meachem had three catches for 67 yards, looking the best he has all season on the field where he spent his first five seasons as a pro. Brees was 22 of 36 for 267 yards, hitting Colston six times for 103 yards.

In the second quarter, Colston made his franchise-record-tying 50th touchdown catch, which 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.