Broncos lead Saints 31-7 in 4th quarter
DENVER (AP) - Peyton Manning shook off a bleeding right thumb after banging it on an opponent's helmet to throw his second and third touchdown passes and the Denver Broncos took a 31-7 lead over Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints early in the fourth quarter Sunday night.
After directing a 98-yard TD drive and throwing a 13-yard scoring pass to Eric Decker, Manning was sandwiched on a safety blitz while completing a 23-yard pass to Decker late in the first half.
Clearly bothered, he handed off four straight times after that, then overthrew Demaryius Thomas in the left corner of the end zone. After a short toss to Brandon Stokley, the Broncos settled for Matt Prater's 33-yard field goal as the first half ended.
Manning didn't appear to be bothered by the thumb while warming up for the second half, however, and he competed all four of his passes on Denver's 93-yard opening drive that ended with a 1-yard strike to Thomas just inside the front left pylon that put the Broncos on top 24-7.
Manning threw a 2-yard TD toss to Decker on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Brees was stifled by an energized Denver defense led by linebacker Wesley Woodyard, who had a sack, an interception, a forced fumble and 10 tackles heading into the fourth quarter.
Brees threw a 29-yard scoring strike to Darren Sproles on the first play of the second quarter, tying the game at 7. It was Brees' 300th career touchdown, tying him with John Elway for sixth-most in league annals, and it extended his NFL record to 50 straight games with a TD pass.
In the first matchup in NFL history pitting two quarterbacks who had thrown three or more TD passes in each of his last three games, both teams turned to their ground games to chew up yards, clock and keep the other team's prolific passer on the sideline as much as they could.
At halftime, both QBs had one touchdown throw, but Manning was more efficient, going 11 of 16 for 178 yards and Brees completing just half of his 18 passes for 104 yards and a passer rating that was half of Manning's 126.2.
The Broncos (3-3) and Saints (2-4) both went three-and-out on their first possessions, Brees and Manning each starting out 0 for 2.
Brees hit tight end Jimmy Graham - back from a sprained right ankle - for a 13-yard gain to start the Saints' second drive, but that one stalled at midfield and Courtney Roby downed the punt at the 2.
Willis McGahee ran four straight times to get the Broncos out from the shadow of their own goal line, then Thomas pulled in a 41-yard grab. Facing an all-out blitz, Manning sidearmed a dart to McGahee, who went down just shy of the end zone before taking it in from a yard out for a 7-0 Denver lead.
He followed a lead block by Denver defensive tackle Mitch Unrein, who lined up at fullback on the play.
Woodyard sacked Brees and forced a fumble that the quarterback recovered at his 11 even though Broncos safety Jimmy Leonhard came out of the pile with the ball.
After the punt, McGahee lost a fumble at midfield and Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton recovered. It was McGahee's third lost fumble of the season.
The Broncos have lost a fumble in a dozen straight games, the longest in the NFL since the Cardinals fumbled the ball away in 18 straight games during the 1996-97 seasons.
Four plays later, Brees hit Sproles over the middle for the tying touchdown.
Woodyard intercepted a pass from Brees on fourth-and-2 from midfield, and Manning converted the takeaway into his first TD pass of the night, a 13-yarder to a wide-open Decker that gave Denver a 14-7 lead.
Fresh off his seven-week bounty-related suspension, New Orleans interim coach Joe Vitt rejoined the team on its flight home from Tampa Bay last week and was on the sideline Sunday night for the first time since the preseason.
The Saints lost their first four games under Vitt's interim replacement, offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, before winning their last two games. But they still face a difficult task in climbing into playoff contention a year after finishing 13-3. Atlanta sits atop the NFC South at 7-0.
First on Vitt's agenda is fixing the NFL's worst defense statistically. The Saints came in having allowed a league-high 465.5 yards per game under new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
Linebacker Jonathan Vilma, with his season-long bounty suspension on appeal, played in his second straight game before his and defensive end Will Smith's appeals are heard.
The Broncos were without cornerback Tracy Porter, who missed his second straight game because of symptoms he continues to experience following a seizure he had in August. Porter was held out of practice most of the week and visited a doctor in hopes of being cleared to play against his former team.
He was replaced by Chris Harris.
The last time Manning and Brees squared off, in the 2010 Super Bowl, it was Porter who stole the spotlight, returning an interception 74 yards to seal the Saints' 24-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts.
Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL
Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton