New Orleans Saints (8-2) in Denver Broncos (4-6), Sundays, 2:05 pm MST, Empower Field on Mile High, FOX, 850 pm, 94.1 FM, 103.5 FM
3 things to watch
1. Taysom time. Saints quarterback Drew Brees is out with broken ribs, but don’t expect New Orleans to panic. Taysom Hill was excellent in his first start last week (18 of 23 passes for 233 yards and two hasty touchdowns) vs. Atlanta. Denver’s pass rush should be confident after pairing six sacks of Tua Tagovailoa against the Dolphins last week. Is Vic Fangio’s defense finally coming of age?
2. Lock and load. Drew Lock has thrown at least one interception in six consecutive games and went against the Dolphins without a touchdown pass. He has to show improved decision-making this season against a Saints defense with 11 tips. Fangio has emphasized patience as Lock continues to grow as an NFL starter.
3. Coronavirus concerns. The Broncos closed their practice facility on Friday and switched to virtual game prep when a player and two staff members confirmed positive COVID-19 tests. Defensive end Shelby Harris is also expected to miss a fourth straight game on Sunday due to the virus. Even the coaching staff are affected, with defensive coordinator Ed Donatell on track for a fifth game absent.
Who has the lead?
When the saints flee
New Orleans spreads its ground game between a pair of highly effective running backs – Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray – in addition to Hill’s prowess as a strong runner. The Saints average of 125.5 is number 8 in the NFL. The Broncos’ walking defense kept the dolphins down to 56 meters, but a much tougher test awaits.
When the saints are over
Michael Thomas has a down season with injury problems; 33-year-old Emmanuel Sanders leads the All Saints receivers with 35 receptions. Kamara is talented at catching balls from the backfield, but the team’s passing attack isn’t what it used to be – especially without Brees. Denver’s secondary is a major team strength behind Justin Simmons’ leadership safety.
When the Broncos flee
Denver’s tandem of Phillip Lindsay and Melvin Gordon produced 166 rushing yards and two touchdowns last week with a carry split 16/15 in favor of Lindsay. The return of Demar Dotson with the right tackle seems to have rejuvenated the Broncos’ ground attack by playing a match against one of the NFL’s best defenses. New Orleans has given up an average of just 74.3 rush yards – the second lowest in the league.
When the Broncos pass by
Opposing secondaries have taken advantage of quarterback Drew Lock’s learning curve this season with 11 interceptions. Rookie wide receiver Jerry Jeudy has shown flashes of genius, but also needs time to develop. Improved offensive line play should help Lock’s cleaner play, but New Orleans’ defensive backfield is stacked. Six different Saints have at least one choice this season.
Broncos kicker Brandon McManus converts 95.2% of his field goal attempts and punt Sam Martin averages 48.2 yards per attempt. Both brands outpace the production of Saints kicker Wil Lutz and punter Thomas Morstead. Neither team was dynamic in the return leg.
Ryan O’Halloran, Beat Writer: Broncos 24, Saints 20
The Broncos defense caused all kinds of problems for Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (six sacks) last week. A similar pressure plan is causing problems for the Saints’ Taysom Hill.
Kyle Fredrickson, sports reporter: Saints 20, Broncos 14
Let’s not forget that the Saints held Tom Brady and the Buccaneers on a field goal earlier this month. The New Orleans defense will make all the difference on Sunday as Drew Lock’s rollercoaster ride continues.
Mark Kiszla, columnist: Saints 24, Broncos 23
Who is going to win? I do not know. I just hope Michael Hancock, Mayor of Denver, gets back to town in time to see the game.
Sean Keeler, columnist: Broncos 22, Saints 20
Forty degrees, at altitude, is no weather for saints. And Taysom Hill might just be Tim Tebow next. He’s not Drew Brees.