NFL Preview - New Orleans (2-4) at Denver (3-3)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A matchup between two of the NFL's most prolific passers headlines "Football Night in America" when Drew Brees leads his New Orleans Saints into the Rockies to face off with Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.
The last time Brees and Manning met was in Super Bowl XLIV when Brees and Co. topped Manning's Indianapolis Colts to win the Lombardi Trophy.
New Orleans' Aaron Kromer finished his job as interim coach last Sunday and Joe Vitt, who was suspended for the first six games as a result of the NFL's bounty investigation, was waiting at Tampa International to accompany his team home after a thrilling 35-28 win over the Buccaneers last Sunday.
Vitt, of course, was tabbed to replace Sean Payton, who has to sit out the entire season due to the bounty heard 'round the world.
What looked like an untenable situation for New Orleans started as one early on with a disastrous 0-4 start. Back-to-back wins, however, and an offense which remains among the NFL's elite has the Saints at least contemplating a historic comeback toward the postseason.
"I'm really happy that we took a team that was not playing well early and we continued to work, continued to believe and won two games in a row," Kromer said. "And now we're going for our third."
Kromer will now go back to tutoring the offensive line and hand the reins back to Vitt, who has a history of navigating teams through some trying times. He spent a portion of the 2005 season as St. Louis' interim head coach when Mike Martz was battling a bacterial heart infection, and served as the head coach on the field in New Orleans back in 2011 when Payton recovered from a broken leg.
And Vitt was called the "obvious choice" to replace Payton this time around by Brees.
So Vitt, the team's linebackers coach when Payton is around, has the support of the franchise player, but Brees is the one constant in the Bayou. He's going to play at a high level if Gumbo the mascot is piloting things.
Brees threw four touchdown passes in the first half against Tampa Bay, finishing the game 27-for-37 with 377 yards and an interception as he extended his NFL-record streak of at least one touchdown pass in a game to 49.
If it seems like Brees is making history every week these days, it's probably because he is. This time around the All-Pro amassed his 16th career contest with four-or-more touchdown passes and 300-plus passing yards, matching Hall of Famer Dan Marino or the most in NFL history.
Brees also registered his 62nd 300-yard passing game, equaling Brett Favre for the third-most all-time. He's now eyeing down Marino (63) and the record holder, Manning (67 games).
"That's pretty impressive, but when you think who it is, it doesn't surprise me," receiver Lance Moore said when talking about Brees. "He's a unique talent we have back there and, hopefully, him and the rest of the team can continue to roll and bounce back from the rough start that we had."
This week Brees (299) needs two touchdown passes to surpass Hall of Famer and former Broncos quarterback John Elway (300) for the sixth-most TD passes in NFL history.
"We want to get on a streak here," Brees said. "Now we've got two (wins). We want to keep that going."
For that to happen, however, Vitt, along with defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, must figure out a way to get more production from their side of the ball.
Despite the return of linebacker and team leader Jonathan Vilma, the central figure on the field in the bounty scandal who is being allowed to play while he is appealing his season-long suspension, NOLA's defense continued to be a disappointment in Tampa.
"Having (Vilma) back just, emotionally, really made a difference in this game," Kromer overstated. "We were trying to get him in certain packages, and we had a couple of linebackers go down early in the game."
If it did make a difference, it didn't show up in the box score. Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson totaled seven receptions for a franchise-record 216 yards and Josh Freeman threw for a career-high 420 yards for the Buccaneers, who aren't exactly an offensive juggernaut most weeks.
The Broncos, meanwhile, had a bye in Week 7 and are likely still a mile-high after the team's historic come-from-behind, 35-24 victory at San Diego.
The Broncos overcame a 24-0 deficit and became the first team in NFL history to win by double-digits after trailing by at least 24. Manning threw all three of his touchdown passes in the second half of that as the Broncos overcame a sluggish start.
Manning completed 24-of-30 attempts for 309 yards and an interception for Denver, registering his 47th career game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime in that one to match Marino for the most by a player since 1970.
Tony Carter and Chris Harris each scored a defensive touchdown, while Eric Decker caught six balls for 98 yards and a score in the victory.
"We feel fortunate to be tied for first place in our division at 3-3. It is going to be competitive division down the stretch and there are some things we need to get better at," Manning said.
The Broncos have won three straight over New Orleans and lead the all-time series 7-2.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Obviously this is all about which defense can at least slow down the opposition's passing game.
The Broncos will need a big effort from their two primary pass rushers, Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, and hope veteran cornerbacks Champ Bailey and former Saint Tracy Porter, whose pick six off Manning in the Super Bowl back in 2010 sealed things for the Saints, can at least slow things down a bit on the outside.
That's easier said than done since Brees may be the most accurate quarterback in football and he has plenty of weapons. Marques Colston has five TD receptions in his past three games, Devery Henderson has two games in a row with a 40-plus yard catch and Moore matched his career-high with nine receptions in Tampa.
"Whatever it takes," Broncos coach John Fox said when asked how his team will stop Brees. "He's a great player. We'll be doing our best to slow him down."
"We've been facing so many good offenses," Dumervil added. "They do so many things well. They have a traditional West Coast type of offense. They get the ball out, good protection, good receivers, tight end. So it's a good challenge for us. We're looking toward it, so we're excited."
Denver did force six turnovers in San Diego while the Saints are such a mess defensively you hardly know where to start. The 2,793 yards New Orleans has allowed so far is the most in NFL history in the first six games of a season. Meanwhile, the 30.3 points per game given up by NOLA is the league's fourth- worst figure.
"I'm certainly not a miracle worker," Vitt said. "I met with (Spagnuolo on Monday) morning, and we know there are things we can do better from a coaching standpoint and from a players' standpoint and from a schematic standpoint."
The defensive line looks solid on paper but has been pedestrian with the bullets flying while the back seven has been one of the NFL's worst, although Vilma can at least bring some leadership to the table and the safeties, Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins, have produced in the past.
Manning has looked like his old self, save for one game in Atlanta, during his debut season in Denver.
The future Hall of Famer, who missed the entire 2011 season in Indianapolis after multiple neck surgeries, is currently second in the NFL with a 105.0 passer rating. After beginning the year 1-2, Manning has thrown for at least 300 yards and three touchdowns while completing more than 70 percent of his passes in each of the Broncos' last three games, the first NFL player in history to do that.
"He is a football genius," said Vitt. "He understands defenses, alignments and pre-snap reads. When you talk about the skill level of quarterbacks there needs to be three characteristics and he has all three. He is tough, smart and accurate."
Vitt may be happy to be back right now but his mood may grow darker when he actually gets to see his defense in action against Manning and a Broncos team which looks like it has a golden opportunity in the AFC West.
"It's too early," Dumervil said when asked about his club's leg up in the division. "We have a good team coming in here on Sunday night. (If) we take care of our business, everything will take its place. First thing's first, we have a good team. We can't be worrying about anybody else. We have to take care of business at home Sunday night."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 34, Saints 30
10/25 11:20:43 ET