Peyton Manning faced down his biggest fear and the frightfully bad New Orleans Saints defense with equal aplomb.
Despite banging his throwing thumb on a blitzer's helmet in the second quarter, Manning passed for 305 yards and three scores, led a pair of 90-plus-yard touchdown drives and easily outplayed Drew Brees to lead the Denver Broncos to a 34-14 rout of the Saints on Sunday night.
Manning faced relentless questions about his health coming into the season after missing all of last year with a nerve injury that required four neck surgeries. Now, it'll be questions about his thumb.
"As a quarterback, your biggest fear is hitting your hand on the helmet of a defensive lineman," Manning said. "It's mostly the nail. Might be sore tomorrow. But I'm probably a little bit lucky."
Manning surpassed the 300-yard mark for the fifth straight time to match his personal best and set a franchise record for the Broncos (4-3), who took sole possession of first place in the AFC West.
He completed 22 of 30 throws for a passer rating of 138.9 and handed off aplenty to Willis McGahee, who ran for 122 yards and a score, and rookie Ronnie Hillman, who gained a personal-best 86 yards on 14 carries.
The Broncos gained 530 yards — a season high — against the NFL's worst defense. The Saints are the first team to allow 400 yards in seven straight games since at least 1950, which is as far back as STATS LLC can search its NFL database.
Coming in on a two-game winning streak, the staggered Saints (2-5) were hoping to get a boost from the return of linebackers-turned-interim head coach Joe Vitt from his seven-week suspension for the team's bounty scandal. All he can do is stand on the sidelines, though, and linebacker Jonathan Vilma — another Saint implicated in the scandal — returned to the starting lineup, but he couldn't plug the holes, either.
The Saints fell five games behind Atlanta in the NFC South a year after going 13-3, continuing a tumultuous stretch that's dogged the franchise since the NFL penalized them for running a money-for-hits bounty pool.
"This football team has been through a lot," Vitt said. "But it's not an excuse for the way we played tonight. It's not an excuse for dropped balls, missed tackles."
Looking back, Vitt said there was probably too much made of his return last week and the team got caught up in it.
"There's nothing that I can do to put pixie dust on this team to make it play better, to make it play more emotional," Vitt said. "And there's probably more hype that substance on my part."
The Broncos held Brees and the league's top passing offense to 213 yards and two scores.
Brees, who was 22 of 42 for 213 yards, did extend his record to 50 straight games with at least one touchdown pass. He also reached 301 career TD passes to climb past John Elway for sixth on the career list.
He was no match for Denver's current star quarterback, however.
"That was a very poor performance on our part," Brees said. "We were not able to sustain drives and we left our defense out there entirely too long. That was just very stale. It never felt like we could get anything going — 1 of 12 on third downs? That's pitiful."
Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard did extensive damage, finishing with 13 tackles, two pass breakups, one sack, one forced fumble and one interception, when Vitt chose to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the Denver 47 early in the second quarter with the game tied at 7.
"They told me before the game they would keep me free to make plays," Woodyard said.
Manning capitalized on Woodyard's pick by leading Denver on a 56-yard drive for the go-ahead touchdown, capped on a 13-yard pass to Eric Decker, who was all alone when Jabari Greer slipped.
A bit later, Manning was sandwiched on a safety blitz while completing a 23-yard pass to Eric Decker and hit his thumb on a defender's helmet. He handed off four straight times after that, then overthrew a pass in the end zone and completed a short pass to Brandon Stokley before the Broncos settled for Matt Prater's 33-yard field goal for a 17-7 halftime lead.
Manning looked fine warming up for the second half and then he answered any questions by going 4 for 4 to start the third quarter, moving the Broncos 93 yards and capping it with a 1-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas for a 24-7 lead.
"I got nervous," Stokley said. "But it didn't look like it was anything too serious."
"Knowing him, as tough as he is, I didn't sweat it," tight end Joel Dreessen said. "I knew he was fine."
Thomas finished with seven catches for 137 yards. Decker also caught a 2-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter for a 31-7 lead.
Brees threw a 29-yard scoring strike to Darren Sproles on the first play of the second quarter, tying it at 7. He also hit tight end Jimmy Graham with an 18-yard TD throw just before the 2-minute warning after the Broncos had put up 27 straight points.
The Broncos won back-to-back games for the first time this season, and with a decidedly more favorable schedule, they look primed for a big run.
"I keep mentioning finding our identity," Manning said, "and we're starting to form it."
NOTES: The Saints managed just 51 yards rushing to Denver's 225. ... The Saints have surrendered a staggering 3,323 yards under new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. ... The Broncos were without CB Tracy Porter, who missed his second straight game because of symptoms he continues to experience following a seizure he had in August. ... Saints S Roman Harper left in the third quarter with a concussion.
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