The Denver Broncos shut down the Saints' offense for most of the game and played bully to the defense, running up 530 yards on the Saints at Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium in Denver. The Broncos won 34-14 in a game made to look better by a late Saints' score.
Drew Brees looked sharp for moments at a time, including a drive coming off a Willis McGahee fumble when he led the Saints to their first touchdown. Brees hit RB Darren Sproles on an angle route out of the backfield and the two former Chargers connected for the touchdown, with Sproles evading the middle of the Denver defense for a score from 29 yards out.
But the Saints would be shut out for the meaningful parts of the rest of the game. Denver took a 17-7 lead into halftime and pushed it 34-7 before Brees found TE Jimmy Graham in the end zone late in the fourth quarter. After the Saints' score and unsuccessful onside kick, Broncos backup QB Brock Osweiler took the field for Manning.
Manning hit 22/30 passes for 305 yards and three scores, and McGahee ripped the Saints for 155 total yards and a rushing touchdown. WR Demaryius Thomas caught 137 of those yards from Peyton, including a third quarter touchdown that pushed the lead to 24-7 against a punchless Saints defense. Thomas beat reserve CB Johnny Patrick to the sideline.
A turning point in the game may have been in the second quarter with the score tied at 7. After Brees had lost a fumble when sacked late in the first quarter, the defense took the ball right back three plays later with the McGahee fumble. Brees led the Saints to a score via Sproles, and the defense forced a punt. Driving now, Brees saw both Courtney Roby and Lance Moore drop first down passes in the right flat and faced 4th and 2 near midfield. After a timeout, Brees took the field again. But the Broncos sniffed out Jimmy Graham's seam pattern, and Brees under duress lofted a pass intercepted by leading star LB Wesley Woodyard.
On the next play, Manning found Thomas wide open past Roman Harper, lost in coverage, for a 34-yard gain to the Saint 22, a drive that ended with a touchdown pass to Eric Decker, who was all alone in the end zone because CB Jabari Greer fell down in coverage. Down 14-7, the Saints would punt, watch Manning drive for a half-ending field goal, then drive for a second-half opening touchdown to put the Broncos up 24-7. Brees completed his last pass of the half with 5:23 left in the second quarter, and thanks to Manning's domination of the clock, didn't complete another until the 8:59 mark of the third quarter.
The Saints did not convert a third down on five attempts in the first half, finally converting a third down with 7:20 left in the third quarter on a pass to WR Marques Colston. Both Colston and Graham had five catches for 63 yards.
Second half drives for the Saints ended in four straight punts until Brees hit Graham for a score with 2:09 left in the game. Brees kept that drive alive by converting a 4th and 9 from his own 41 and a 4th and 8 from the Denver 43, but the game was all but decided long before then.
Brees finished with 213 yards passing and two touchdowns on the day, with 71 of those yards on the final drive late in the game, down 34-7.
It was the return of Joe Vitt to the Saints' sideline, and he was greeted by two replacement starters at outside linebacker, including Jonathan Vilma at weakside and Will Herring at strongside. Vilma found just three tackles on defense and Herring did not record a stat, though the Saints played most of the game in a nickel formation with Vilma and MLB Curtis Lofton sharing the field.
The Saints' two starting safeties, Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins, led the Saints in tackles with eight solo each, and Harper as usual was victimized and turned around while in coverage. Harper may have suffered a concussion in the third quarter, but returned to the game.
RB's Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles were highlights for the Saints' tonight, begging the question of how effective they would be when given more carries. Thomas finished with 8 carries for 43 yards, including two carries late in the game when he showed more fight and grit than any player on the field. Sproles received only four carries which netted -1 yards, and had 56 yards on seven catches.
P Thomas Morstead also had an excellent night, booting eight punts for a 46.3 yard average, including four pinning the Broncos inside their own 20. Morstead booted a 63-yarder in the second half which, when combined with a holding penalty on the Broncos' return, changed the field position from the Saint 29 to the Bronco 4.
WR Courtney Roby appeared to have injured a shoulder in the second quarter and did not return.
The Saints apparently benched DT Brodrick Bunkley in favor of DT Akiem Hicks, deactivating Bunkley and starting the rookie alongside Sedrick Ellis. During the game the Saints also appeared to have benched, if temporarily, starting cornerback Patrick Robinson, who was beaten badly by Manning throughout the night.