Denver cruised out of the starting blocks of this season to 4-0. Then the Broncos hit some bumps in the road in their quest to repeat as Super Bowl champions. They have dropped three of their last five games. More disconcerting is that two of their losses occurred within the AFC West, the division that they have won each of the past five seasons.
New Orleans has turned around its season after stumbling out of the gates at 0-3. The Saints have won four of their last five games. They are seeking to climb above .500 for the first time this season.
The Broncos hold an 8-2 advantage in the all-time series versus the Saints, including each of the past four meetings. Denver has won three of the four games played in New Orleans. The Saints' last victory over the Broncos occurred in the regular season finale of the 1994 season.
Denver at New Orleans
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 13 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Saints -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Continued Improvement by Saints' Defense?
New Orleans was far too generous n defense early in the season, allowing opponents to score 34 or more points in four of the first five games. This trend has been reversed more recently, as the Saints have given up just 23 points per game over their last three. Included in this scoring are a pair of touchdowns scored off of turnovers by New Orleans’ offense — an interception return by Kansas City’s Daniel Sorensen in Week 7 and a fumble return by Seattle’s Earl Thomas in Week 8.
For Denver, the magic number has been 21. The Broncos are 6-0 when scoring at least that many points while they have averaged just 16.3 points per game in their three losses. Can the Saints continue their recent defensive performance or will Denver’s offense find its rhythm (and the end zone) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome?
2. Strengthening Saints' Running Attack vs. Broncos' Declining Rush Defense
During Denver’s first six game, the defense alternated between giving up a lot of rushing yards (140.7 ypg in Weeks 1, 3, 5) and limiting the opposition on the ground (84.7 ypg in Weeks 2, 4, 6). Over the past three games, however, the Broncos have been more consistent in this department, but not in a good way. Oakland gashed Denver to the tune of 218 rushing yards last week, as the Broncos have surrendered 160.3 yards per game on the ground over their last three contests. For the season, Denver ranks near the bottom of the NFL (29th) in rushing defense at 128.6 yards per game. The pass defense has been stout, but Von Miller and company will need to figure out a way to stiffen up when teams try to run the ball on the defending Super Bowl champs.
Since the bye in Week 5, New Orleans has been making progress with its running game. Over the last four games, the Saints’ rushing yards have increased from 63 to 104 to 123 to a season-high 248 last week against San Francisco. New Orleans is now averaging 108.3 rushing yards per game and while that puts them in the middle of the league (15th), it’s still a positive sign considering it provides more balance for an otherwise pass-heavy offense and given the Broncos’ recent struggles against the run.
3. Outstanding Saints' Passing Attack vs. Broncos' Formidable Passing Defense
It should come as no surprise that New Orleans leads the NFL in passing offense (326.4 ypg). It’s one of the reasons why the Saints are second in scoring (30.3 ppg). Drew Brees leads the league in passing (336 ypg), is second in total passing yards (2,689) and passer rating (106.7) and has added five more 300-yard games to his NFL-record career total (101). Despite being tied for the third-most attempts this season, Brees has thrown just five interceptions, although two of those were returned for touchdowns.
Similar to New Orleans’ consistent success throwing the ball, Denver once again is fielding the league’s best passing defense. The Broncos are giving up just 183.3 yards per game through the air and have surrendered six touchdowns passes compared to eight interceptions. Only two teams have finished with more than 200 passing yards against them and no quarterback has thrown for 300 yards even though this defense has already faced Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Derek Carr, Jameis Winston and Philip Rivers (twice).
Despite their issues in stopping the run, the Broncos are giving up just 18.4 points per game, good for eighth in the league. Injuries have impacted this unit more this season compared to last, especially in the secondary. Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib will miss his third straight game with a back injury while position mate Kayvon Webster (hamstring) is questionable. With limited depth and playing in one of the toughest environments for a road team, how will Denver’s defense hold up against Brees and the Saints’ aerial assault?
Denver’s offense has struggled over the past five weeks, averaging just 19.2 points per game and going just 2-3 during that span. This has led to speculation about whether head coach Gary Kubiak should replace quarterback Trevor Siemian with first-round pick Paxton Lynch. After getting off to a solid start, Siemian has struggled, but let’s not forget this is first season as the starter and it’s never easy to replace one of the greatest to ever play the position. The Broncos’ defense while still among the NFL’s best statistically, also should shoulder some of the blame as it has regressed in particular against the run.
After stumbling out of the gates, New Orleans has righted the ship and now finds itself in familiar territory. In each of the past two seasons, the Saints were sitting at .500 going into a mid-season home game. In both 2014 and ’15, they blew the lead in the fourth quarter and eventually lost in overtime. Will the third time be the charm? The Who Dat Nation hopes so.
Prediction: Saints 28, Broncos 20
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.