PITTSBURGH -- The standings say the New Orleans Saints are in first place. For once, it looked that way on the field, too.
Drew Brees peppered the end zone with footballs. The defense harassed Ben Roethlisberger into costly mistakes. Head coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan exchanged words on the sideline.
Just another day at work for the volatile NFC South leaders, even Sunday's 35-32 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers upped New Orleans' record to a mediocre 5-7.
"It's not time to reflect," Brees said. "We're full steam ahead. We have four regular-season games here that are going to determine our season."
Judging by its best four quarters in a month, New Orleans finally appears ready to make a move. Six days and 1,100 miles removed from an ugly home loss to Baltimore, the Saints appeared reborn. Brees threw five touchdowns for the ninth time in his career. Kenny Stills caught five passes for a career-high 162 yards and a score as New Orleans ended a three-game losing streak by restoring a little bit of respectability to the worst division in the league.
The Steelers (7-5) kept New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham in check with no catches, but it hardly mattered. Brees worked Pittsburgh's secondary over anyway. Ben Watson, Marques Colston, Erik Lorig and Nick Toon hauled in touchdowns as New Orleans romped.
"The ball just happened to go other places today," Brees said. "There were great matchups and we were able to make big plays in the passing game, so it was just one of those crazy games where, for whatever reason, he didn't get a catch."
Watson, Lorig and Toon hadn't been in the end zone all season. It changed during a 25-minute stretch in which the Saints turned a 6-0 deficit into a 35-16 lead. Signs of life from one of the NFL's most embattled defenses helped. The Saints picked off Roethlisberger twice, and Brees converted both miscues into scores.
It hardly mattered that Payton and Ryan had a heated exchange in the third quarter when New Orleans was forced to call timeout because the defense had 12 players on the field. Consider it the cost of doing business.
"That's just me being fired up," Payton said.
There was plenty to get excited about on a day the Saints controlled nearly from start to finish as they ended a three-game losing streak. A couple of cosmetic touchdowns by the Steelers in the final 3 minutes made the score much closer than the reality.
"As long as I've been here, we never lost three games in a row, especially at home, so this was a big win today," linebacker Junior Galette said. "We entered this game professionally and went out there and did the job."
Roethlisberger passed for 435 yards and two touchdowns but also threw two interceptions for the Steelers. Le'Veon Bell caught eight passes for a career-high 159 yards and also added 95 yards and a touchdown on the ground, but Pittsburgh was never really in it over the final three quarters.
Pittsburgh opted to focus on Graham, often double-covering one of the NFL's biggest weapons. No biggie. Brees completed 19 of 27 passes to nine different receivers. Mark Ingram ran for 122 yards as the Saints effectively counterpunched with touchdowns while the Steelers piled up field goals.
"Offensively, defensive and on special teams, we can play with the best teams in the league," Ingram said. "As long as we don't hurt ourselves, we can win football games."
The passes that Roethlisberger zipped so crisply to open receivers while throwing for an NFL-record 12 touchdown passes in his past two home starts sailed high and out of reach and occasionally into the arms of New Orleans defenders. Roethlisberger's problems started early and were exacerbated when he smacked his right hand off the helmet of Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton late in the first quarter.
New Orleans defensive end Cameron Jordan tipped a pass by Roethlisberger early in the third quarter and caught it for his first career interception to give the Saints the ball at the Pittsburgh 15. It took Brees two plays to hit Toon for an 11-yard score to make it 21-6. The Steelers responded with a 13-play, 83-yard drive that ended with Bell sprinting around left end for his third score of the year.
Pittsburgh's momentum lasted 2:31, or the time it took New Orleans to go 89 yards. Stills covered the last 69 all by himself, badly beating Pittsburgh cornerback Ike Taylor on a double move. He raced across the goal line to make it 28-16, and Brees completed his best day of the season with a 3-yard lob to Colston.
Steelers DE Brett Keisel left in the third quarter with a triceps injury and did not return. ... Graham was also held without a catch in a Week 7 loss to Detroit. ... Pittsburgh fell to 6-2 after its bye week under coach Mike Tomlin. ... The Saints host Carolina next Sunday while the Steelers travel to Cincinnati.
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