DENVER — New Orleans was in position Sunday night to keep alive the unthinkable dream of a run to the postseason.
Unfortunately for the Saints, Peyton Manning and a red-hot Denver team weren’t interested in playing a part in the Hollywood run.
New Orleans lost to Denver 34-14 on a cool, crisp night at Mile High Stadium and, with nine weeks left to go in the season, has all but eliminated itself from the NFC playoff race by falling to 2-5.
Manning strafed the Saints’ beleaguered defense for 305 yards and three touchdowns, guiding the Broncos (4-3) on clock-eating scoring drives that included ones of 98, 93, and 73 yards. Denver converted 5 of 14 third downs, helping the Broncos own nearly 10-minute advantage in time of possession. Running back Willis McGahee finished with 122 yards on 23 carries for Denver.
As rough as the defense had it, New Orleans’ offense was equally as inefficient, never giving the defense a shot to catch its breath. The Saints gained only 253 total yards, the team’s fewest since gaining only 213 in the 2009 regular season finale.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees ended the night 22 of 42 for just 213 yards, finishing with a 72.8 quarterback rating in losing his duel with manning.
Equally as poor was the NFL’s worst-run offense, which gained only 52 yards.
The Saints were only 1 of 12 on third down, their worst performance since the opening week loss to Washington when they converted just 18 percent.
After both teams went three-and-out to begin Sunday’s game, the Broncos struck first. Saints punter Thomas Morstead pinned Denver at its own 2-yard line. But 11 plays and one third-down conversion later, Willis McGahee punched the ball across the goal line for a 1-yard touchdown and a 7-0 Denver lead with 4:39 to go in the opening quarter.
New Orleans was held to another three-and-out, but rookie defensive tackle Akiem Hicks turned the momentum in the first half, forcing a fumble on a Broncos handoff to McGahee. Curtis Lofton recovered and the Saints tied the game at 7-7 on a Drew Brees to Darren Sproles 29-yard touchdown pass.
Acting Saints head coach Joe Vitt’s first big decision was a bust, however, as the Saints went for a fourth-and-two from Denver’s 47. Brees was intercepted by Denver’s Wesley Woodyard and Manning needed only 2 minutes, 17 seconds to drive the Broncos back to a lead, hitting Eric Decker for a 13-yard touchdown pass and a 14-7 lead.
Matt Prater’s 33-yard field goal as the first half ended put the Saints in a 17-7 halftime hole.
More importantly, whatever moment the Saints had gained in the past few weeks on offense seemed to have dissipated. The first half of Sunday’s game combined with the second half of the Bucs game included seven punts, only two touchdowns and one interception of Brees. Just as striking – the Saints converted zero third downs in the first 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, the Saints had already given up 265 total yards, including 87 on the ground.
And there were still 30 minutes of football to play.
The Saints opened the second half on defense but couldn’t stop the Broncos on three third downs, including third-and-goal from the 1 when Manning hit Demaryius Thomas in front of New Orleans cornerback Johnny Patrick in the end zone. Denver had a 24-7 lead early in the third before New Orleans even had possession of the ball in the second half.
Manning’s third touchdown pass, a 2-yard pass to Decker with 14:54 to go in the fourth quarter, sent those donning orange and blue into a tizzy as it gave Denver a 31-7 lead.
Prater ended Denver’s scoring with a 33-yard field goal. Brees connected with Jimmy Graham for an 18-yard touchdown to put the game to bed.