Photos: Saints take down Steelers at Heinz Field _lowres

Associated Press photo by Gene J. Puskar -- Despite criticisms of Saints quarterback Drew Brees's play this year, he fared fine against the Steelers, throwing for 257 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions in the Saints' 35-32 win Sunday in Pittsburgh.

Sean Payton and Rob Ryan hate each others’ guts!

Saints on the verge of signing Ray Rice!

Team views Drew Brees as washed up!

Mark Ingram and Ben Grubbs brawl while watching the Iron Bowl!

OK, we made that last one up. Call it a late Sunday Splash.

But you get the idea.

There was enough negative gossip floating around the Saints on Sunday morning to send Who Datland into a pregame meltdown.

Except that at Team Turmoil all was tranquil.

Or at least tranquil enough that everyone put their alleged differences aside to unite for a 35-32 road victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers. When everything is said and done, it may turn out to be the both the most-unexpected and most-significant victory this confounding season.

“I absolutely understand that the fans are scratching their heads,” Payton said Monday. “We have been inconsistent, and I’m in the same line with the people on that.”

But inconsistent or not, the 5-7 Saints enter December tied with Atlanta for the lead in the NFC South and with a clear picture of what it takes to claim it along the home game for the first round of the playoffs that goes with it.

If the Saints win the their three games against their division foes — Carolina in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome this Sunday, the Falcons on Dec. 21, and at Tampa Bay on Dec. 28 — they prevail via the little-known codicil that is the fourth tiebreaker for division titles after overall, head-to-head and division records — the record against common opponents.

The Saints are 5-4 in that category and the Falcons 3-6, meaning that with a sweep of the other games, the Saints would be 8-8, 1-1 against the Falcons, 5-1 in the division and either 7-5 or 8-4 against common opponents, depending on the result against the Bears. The Falcons would be 8-8, 1-1, 5-1 and at best 6-6 against common foes.

Carolina can also get to the playoffs with a sweep of its remaining games, and the Panthers’ tie actually gives them the edge in common foes against both the Saints and Falcons.

But when Carolina comes to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday, it will have been two months and two days since the Panthers’ last victory.

And despite the dismal state of the division (going 2-2 against outside foes on Sunday elevated its record to 8-25-1 in that category) luckless Tampa Bay is actually eliminated because the 2-10 Buccaneers would lose all of the divisional record tie-breakers.

Feel free to clip and save so you can impress your friends with that knowledge.

Out at 5800 Airline Highway, they profess not to be paying attention.

“I don’t know where we are in the standings; I don’t know where they’re at,” defensive end Cam Jordan said Monday. “I just know we have to get this win.”

Outside of being woefully ignorant about the state of things (Try reading the sports section, Cam), Jordan’s right.

No matter what’s happened in the first three months of this season, the Saints need only to keep winning to keep their postseason hopes alive.

Certainly Sunday’s victory, coming after the woeful three-game ’Dome losing streak, demonstrated what the team has supposedly been capable of all season: a diverse offense with Drew Brees at the controls, and a defense, albeit an injury-battered one, that gives up big yardage but makes crucial stops (6-of-14 on third-down conversions) with just enough special teams contributions (46.0 yards net punting by Thomas Morstead with two downed inside the 5) to help make a difference.

And, maybe for the first time, the Saints seemed to get the breaks:

-- A week after snow battered the Northeast, it was 63 degrees at kickoff, so they weren’t dealing with unfamiliar element.

-- Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger injured his hand early on, contributing to his erratic performance in the first three quarters. Big Ben completed 19 of 26 in the frantic fourth quarter when the Steelers were helplessly behind. Before that, he was 13-32.

-- Native New Orleanian and Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor returned after being out with an injury and played so badly it looked like he was trying to help his hometown team.

-- Another local, Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis, returned to face his old team. And perhaps remembering something from the Steelers playbook, he sniffed out a flea-flicker and covered Antonio Brown, forcing an incompletion.

-- There were timely penalties against the Steelers, including the defensive holding call early in the fourth quarter that turned a third-down sack into a first down at the Pittsburgh 37.

Three plays later, Brees hit Colston for his fifth touchdown pass of the day, and the Saints had what proved to be an insurmountable 35-16 lead.

-- Payton also got reversals on a pair of challenges.

-- And there were the two interceptions: one in the end zone by Patrick Robinson, and Jordan’s at the Steelers 35 plus his return to the 15.

It was the first of Jordan’s career.

“I’ve done it in practice a couple of times,” he said. “But I finally got the right bounce off my hand.”

That said it for the whole game.

As for the rumors, well, coaches get into it with each other and players all the time. It just looks worse when Payton and Ryan are involved. But don’t read too much into it.

Rice’s punishment may have been excessive, but he’s probably too radioactive for any team to sign him for the rest of this season, especially one with a solid running game like the Saints.

And yes, Brees is getting on in football years, and you can rest assured that the Saints are planning for the future with possible high draft pick in 2015. Before the Tampa Bay game, Payton revealed that Mike Glennon was on the Saints board in the 2013 draft, but the Bucs took him two spots before the Saints turn.

But No. 9 looked pretty good Sunday.

For that matter, so did everyone else.