Peyton Manning directed a 98-yard touchdown drive for Denver, and New Orleans' Drew Brees responded with a 29-yard scoring strike to Darren Sproles on the first play of the second quarter, tying the game 7-7 on Sunday night.
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.
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 Demaryius 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.
Wesley 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.
Four plays later, Brees hit Sproles over the middle, extending his record streak to 50 straight games with a touchdown pass.
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.
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