DENVER — If the Denver Broncos and New Orleans Saints put on as compelling a show on the field as they do off of it, tonight’s game should be a blockbuster.
The two teams that have captured the bulk of the NFL headlines for the past nine months – Denver by chasing, then landing, Peyton Manning, New Orleans for its bounty scandal – meet in what’s being plugged as a high-scoring shootout.
The Broncos (3-3) have Manning, who is on pace for a 4,800-yard season and, in Denver’s last game, became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 300 yards, three touchdowns and complete 70 percent of his passes in three consecutive games.
Trying to keep pace with Manning is Drew Brees, who has grown used to trying to match teams point for point this season.
New Orleans (2-4) leads the league in passing yards but is last in rushing. On the other side of the ball, the Saints not only have the league’s last-ranked defense, but they’ve given up more yards (2,793) than any team over the first six games since 1950, which is as far back as STATS LLC can search its NFL database.
“I feel like, in a lot of ways, those numbers don’t tell the story,” Brees said.
Indeed, you must look beyond the numbers to figure out the Saints this year. Almost every part of their 2012 résumé so far – the pass-happy offense, the woeful defense, games decided by an average score of 30-29 – has been shaped by the uncertainty and turmoil that’s surrounded them since the NFL penalized them for running a money-for-hits bounty pool.
Joe Vitt returns to the team as the interim head coach for the rest of the season. Vitt, normally the linebackers coach, is coming off his own six-game suspension and now takes over with New Orleans already four games behind in the NFC South.
The Broncos have the NFL’s fourth-ranked passing game – partly a product of Manning, who has answered all questions about his health and arm strength after sitting out a year and becoming a free agent, and partly because Denver has had to play come-from-behind football in almost all its games so far.
The Broncos took that to an extreme last time they were on the field, two weeks ago in San Diego; they turned a 24-0 deficit into a 35-24 win, marking the first time in NFL history a team has trailed by that much and gone on to win by double digits.
“It certainly says something good about our team, that we can come back and we can score when we need to,” Manning said. “But we’re still looking for that 60-minute game, not that 30- or 40-minute game.”
If the Saints could get even half a solid game out of their defense, it would be an improvement. A team that’s giving up an average of 465 yards a game certainly isn’t talking about shutting down Manning completely.
“You can try to get in his head, but more often than not you’ll probably get in your own head and mess yourself up,” safety Roman Harper said. “If you do the same thing two or three times, that’s when he starts to get a bead on it.”
None of the Broncos, meanwhile, want to hear about how badly the Saints have been struggling.
“What you can’t do is get caught up in the hype,” defensive lineman Kevin Vickerson said. “They’ve been under a lot of turmoil with the coaches and the bounty suspensions. But at the same time, it’s still a group of good men over there. They’ve got a good team. But it’s not really what they do. It’s what we do.”