That Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning was able to return from multiple neck surgeries just to play this season figures to make him a popular, if not unanimous choice for the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year. Manning's on-field performance has him squarely in the discussion for the NFL Most Valuable Player award, too.
Manning passed for 305 yards and three touchdowns, and the Broncos would get 223 yards on the ground and play suffocating defense in their 34-14 win over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday night.
The Broncos opened the scoring with an 11-play, 98-yard drive that nearly ended with a 15-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown by running back Willis McGahee, who was ruled down just short of the goal-line. McGahee would punch the ball into the end zone on the following play. After exchanging three-and-outs, the Saints would even the score when Darren Sproles would catch a short pass from Drew Brees and scamper 29 yards for a game-tying touchdown on the opening play of the second quarter.
The Broncos would dominate the remainder of the game, intercepting Brees after a questionable decision to attempt to a fourth-and-two play near midfield. The Broncos would take advantage of the short field to drive 56 yards in five plays, with Manning connecting with Eric Decker for a 13-yard touchdown to give the Broncos a 14-7 lead. After forcing a punt on the Saints' following possession, Manning led the Broncos on an 11-play, 72-yard drive that used up the final 4:24 of the first half before Matt Prater connected on a 33-yard field goal to extend the lead to 17-7 at the half.
Manning appeared to suffer a right thumb injury when his throwing hand hit in a helmet during his follow-through, but he would be fine and play in the second half, extending his own NFL record for 300-yard passing games with No. 68 for his career.
"It's always kind of a quarterback's biggest fear, is a hand on a helmet," Manning told NBC's Michele Tafoya after the game, "but I think it's the finger nail, actually. It'll be sore tomorrow, but it wasn't too bad and I was able to play in the second half."
Denver received the ball at the start of the third quarter and drove 93 yards in seven plays before Manning and Demaryius Thomas hooked up for a one-yard touchdown. Denver and New Orleans traded punts, but a 22-yard return Broncos return specialist Trindon Holliday gave Manning and the offense the ball near midfield. A pair of 23-yard strikes to Jacob Tamme and Thomas helped put the Broncos at the Saints' two-yard line to start the quarter. From there, Manning and Decker connected for a second time, extending the Broncos' lead to 31-7.
Manning deserves and will get the lion's share of the credit for the Broncos win on Sunday and current place in the standings. Through seven games, Manning has completed over 68 percent of 257 pass attempts for 2,113 yards with 17 touchdowns and four interceptions for a passing rating of 108.9, edging him ahead of Aaron Rodgers (107.9) of the Green Bay Packers for the league lead. But Manning did not do it alone on Sunday night. Denver's running game, which averaged just 93 yards per game over the first six games, saw McGahee run 122 yards and Hillman churn out 86 yards, both season-highs and a career-high for Hillman, who had just 50 yards on 17 carries in his four previous appearances this season.
There's also the Broncos defense, which was ranked 10th in total defense and passing defense entering Sunday night and did an exceptional job of bottling up Brees and a Saints offensive attack that was welcoming back tight end Jimmy Graham from an ankle injury. The Saints produced 252 yards of total offense, well below the 411.3 it had been averaging over the first six games of the season. A Saints offense that was second in the NFL on third downs converted on just one of 12 opportunities against the Broncos. On the six possessions between touchdowns, the Saints offense mustered just 94 yards on 31 plays, going three-and-out on three consecutive possessions between the end of the third and start of the fourth quarter.
Linebacker Wesley Woodyard, a four-year captain on special teams who is getting a chance to play more on defense due to the suspension of D.J. Williams, spearheaded a defensive effort with 13 tackles, including a sack, and an interception of Brees.
With the win, the Broncos move to 4-3 and are in sole possession of first place in the AFC West. Denver is on the road the next two weeks, facing the Cincinnati Bengals on Nov. 4 and Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers on Nov. 11. New Orleans' two-game winning streak comes to an end and at 2-5, the Saints are now five games behind the undefeated Atlanta Falcons, who they'll place twice in the next five weeks, including at home on Nov. 11.
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