The New Orleans Saints survived their first game with Taysom Hill as their starting quarterback in impressive fashion and will look to extend their seven-game winning streak when they travel to face the Denver Broncos on Sunday.
With Drew Brees sidelined with 11 broken ribs and a collapsed lung, Hill filled in admirably. Both of his touchdowns came on the ground, but he notably did not throw an interception and completed passes at a 78.2 percent rate. However, New Orleans' defense carried the day by sacking Matt Ryan eight times and pressuring him into throwing two interceptions.
The Broncos are coming off a win over the Dolphins at home last Sunday, which snapped a two-game losing streak on the road. Denver won despite losing the turnover battle (two to one) and the third-down conversion difference (four of 12 compared to seven of 16 for Miami). The Broncos were buoyed by their ground game, as Melvin Gordon III and Philip Lindsay each picked up more than 80 yards.
Denver is facing an extremely unusual situation for this game as all four quarterbacks are ineligible to play on Sunday due to COVID-19 concerns. This means the Broncos' offense will look quite different, assuming this game happens as scheduled.
Head-to-head, Denver owns a 9-2 edge over New Orleans, including 5-1 in games played in the Mile High City. Since the Saints won in Denver on Christmas Eve in 1994, the Broncos have claimed the past five meetings.
New Orleans at Denver
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 29 at 4:05 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Taysom Hill repeat his efficient and effective mix of passing and running?
Hill demonstrated that he can serve as more than a gimmick who occasionally throws or catches the ball but mostly runs with it. He completed 18 of 23 passing attempts (more than four times the totals from his previous nine games) for 233 yards, nearly three times his previous total in 2020. He carried the ball a career-high 10 times for 51 yards (second-most in a game) and two touchdowns (career-high).
Sean Payton and the rest of the Saints' coaching staff do have cause for concern about Hill's performance. He held the ball too long occasionally, leading to three sacks. A defender stripped him of the ball on a long run, leading to his fourth fumble in this season and third one recovered by the opponents. His underthrown 44-yard pass to Emmanuel Sanders in the second quarter looked more like a punt that easily could have been intercepted. Might teams continue to catch onto his unique style the more game tape they get on him?
2. Who will be at quarterback for Denver?
Because of injuries, the Broncos have already started three different quarterbacks this year – Drew Lock, Jeff Driskel, and Brett Rypien. Because of COVID-19, none of them, as well as practice squad member Blake Bortles, is available for Sunday's game. According to reports, Driskel tested positive on Thursday and was moved to the reserve/COVID-19 list that same day. Then on Saturday, the other three signal-callers were pulled from practice after being deemed high-risk close contacts. As a result, Denver won't even have an NFL quarterback on its active roster on Sunday.
Running back Royce Freeman is believed to be the team's emergency quarterback while wide receiver Kendall Hinton, who played quarterback during his first three seasons at Wake Forest, could be elevated from the practice squad. Another option is to feature the Wildcat with Melvin Gordon III or Phillip Lindsay receiving the snap. There's also the possibility this game ends up getting postponed, especially if the Broncos' roster continues to get thinned out by COVID-19.
Whoever is at quarterback will be facing a Saints defense that has seemed to have found its groove. Since the Week 6 bye, New Orleans is giving up 14.4 points and 267 yards per game over a five-game span.
3. Will the Broncos be able to run the ball against the Saints' defense?
Because of the quarterback situation, Denver will have to lean even more than usual on its running game. The Broncos have gained at least 100 yards on the ground in eight games. However, their average of 114.8 rushing yards per game ranks as just 15th in the NFL. They are ranked tied for 21st with nine rushing touchdowns.
The Broncos' running attack has relied on Gordon and Lindsay throughout the season as both have missed time. Gordan has rushed the ball 122 times for 523 yards and six touchdowns in nine contests, although he has fumbled away the ball four times. Gordan has exceeded 100 yards on the ground only twice in the last two seasons (at the Raiders in 2019 and at the Jets this year). Lindsay has compiled 394 yards, one touchdown, and no fumbles on 73 attempts during his seven appearances. He has gained more than 100 rushing yards at New England this season and during two contests in 2019, against the Lions and the Chargers.
The Broncos will find the New Orleans' rushing defense tougher than overcooked turkey left over from Thanksgiving. The Saints have allowed just 74.3 rushing yards per game, the second-lowest average in the NFL. They are tied for the fewest rushing touchdowns allowed (five). No running back has exceeded 100 rushing yards in a game versus New Orleans since Samaje Perine on Nov. 19, 2017.
Last Sunday, the Saints proved that they have the definite potential to compete for a Super Bowl berth, even without their eventual Hall of Fame quarterback. Taysom Hill guided the offense to multiple scoring drives, making use of his dual-threat capabilities. Michael Thomas appeared back to full capacity after missing several games following the season-opener. Alvin Kamara has been making his case for the Most Valuable Player Award. The defense has continued to stuff opposing rushing attacks and to harass other teams’ quarterbacks.
Denver is running out of time and games to gain ground in the AFC Wild Card derby. Going into this contest, the Broncos trail a trio of teams (Raiders, Ravens, and Dolphins) by two games. This deficit exists despite a victory over Miami. The Broncos must win this matchup at home with three more road games pending, including two within the division. Facing the current leader of the NFC is not the ideal opponent to try to establish a winning streak against, especially when you don't even have an NFL quarterback on your roster.
Prediction: Saints 27, Broncos 10
— 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.