Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press file photo
Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press file photo
ENGLEWOOD – The team Peyton Manning grew up loving is nothing more, or less, than the next team on the quarterback’s schedule this week.
And because Manning gave up cheering for the New Orleans Saints long ago, the Broncos quarterback has been spared his share of heartache this season.
As Manning gets ready to play his dad’s old team, he looks at the tape and sees what is shaping up as one of the worst defenses in the history of the league. Through six games, New Orleans has allowed 2,793 yards – more than any team since 1950, which is as far back as STATS LLC can search its NFL database.
It’s a team that has allowed four of its first six opponents to gain their season-high in yardage, a team that receives a near daily dose of news about a bounty case that has cost New Orleans its head coach, Sean Payton, for a year and its linebackers and interim head coach, Joe Vitt, for the first six games.
This Sunday marks Vitt’s return. How that might help, or hurt, a defense that has given up 182 points during its 2-4 start will be seen when the Saints take on the Broncos (3-3). Manning, not surprisingly, isn’t taking the bait about the Saints being vulnerable.
“I know their defense is challenged,” Manning said. “People are talking about their defense. But all I see is what I see on tape. I see guys flying around, making plays. I see (Malcolm) Jenkins running their receiver down at the 1-yard line. That was probably the biggest play of that game against Tampa.”
The Jenkins play – his tackle of Buccaneers receiver Vincent Jackson at the New Orleans 1 after a 95-yard gain – and the goal-line stand that ensued helped preserve the Saints’ seven-point lead in a 35-28 win over Tampa Bay last week. Of course, the fact that the Saints’ biggest play on defense was holding the other team to a 95-yard gain also says something about a unit giving up 465 yards per game.
Manning, meanwhile, is enjoying what very well could be the best three-game stretch of his career, statistically speaking. He’s the first player in NFL history to throw for 300 yards, three touchdowns and complete 70 percent of his passes in three consecutive games.
“I just marvel when I watch the man play,” Vitt said.
The Broncos had a bye last week, which they hope hasn’t slowed their momentum after a 35-24 win over San Diego on Oct. 15.
As much as focusing on the Saints, they are looking in the mirror, trying to get a grasp on why they continue to start slow. They’ve been outscored 98-42 this season in the first half but have outscored teams 79-6 in the fourth quarter, the best margin in the league by 37 points. Against the Chargers, they fell behind 24-0, only to become the first team in history to turn that big a deficit into a double-digit victory.
“We’re studying it and trying hard to get off to a better start,” Manning said. “This would be a great week to do it. This is not a team you want to fall behind because they have potential to keep scoring, keep extending that lead.”
The over-under on this week’s game is 55½ points – a full eight points higher than the next-highest number on the NFL board this week.
A matchup between Manning and Drew Brees certainly is to thank for that. Two weeks ago, Brees set an NFL record, formerly held by Johnny Unitas, by throwing a touchdown pass in his 48th consecutive game. He extended it to 49 in the win over the Bucs last week.
“Quarterbacks don’t put up those numbers unless they have a lot of people around them believing in them, and I think that’s a rare quality,” Vitt said. “That’s what both of those guys have the ability to do.”
It was Brees who got the better in the matchup three seasons ago, when the Saints defeated Manning and the Indianapolis Colts 31-17 in the Super Bowl. Manning spent much of the lead-up to that game discussing his roots in New Orleans: What it was like growing up a fan of one of the most bedraggled teams in the leagues, whose quarterback happened to be his father, Archie.
Peyton certainly has a sense of both football history and his roots – he used the bye week to head back to Tennessee, where he played college ball and where they named a street after him. But, he insists, his days of keeping a close eye on the Saints are long behind him.
“Certainly, I have great friends in New Orleans. My family’s still there,” Manning said. “But I’ve been with two different NFL teams now. I’m a pretty loyal fan to the team I play for, I’d like to think.”
Chris O’Meara/Associated Press file photo