The Denver Broncos made it through their treacherous front-loaded schedule undeterred if not unscathed.
Of Denver's 10 remaining games, just one is against a winning team, and that's the reeling Baltimore Ravens, who don't look so imposing with Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb on injured reserve.
Still, the Broncos (3-3) bristle at the notion that things lighten up for them now that Houston, Atlanta and New England are in their rearview mirror.
"Oh, it's still tough," safety David Bruton said. "We've got the Saints this week. We've still got another playoff team next week with the Bengals. I mean, it doesn't seem to get any easier. We still play top competition each week."
The Saints have won two straight after losing their first four games by a combined 20 points. Assistant head coach Joe Vitt returns from his suspension this week and will lead the Saints in Sean Payton's absence the rest of the season.
"Kind of like Coach (John) Fox said, you don't have to worry too much about their record when you look at the tape," tight end Jacob Tamme said. "Very talented, really good football team."
One Broncos player who's especially jazzed about the Saints game is cornerback Tracy Porter, but he insists it's because he missed last week's game with an illness and not because he played his first four seasons in New Orleans.
"It doesn't mean that much more, but it is going to be a weird feeling playing against my former team," said Porter, who returned to practice Monday.
Porter is still revered in New Orleans for his 74-yard interception return for a touchdown that sealed the Saints' Super Bowl win over the Indianapolis Colts three seasons ago.
After denying Peyton Manning his second title, Porter is now trying to help the star quarterback win another title and relishes the thought of a pick-six against his former Saints teammate, Drew Brees.
"It's kind of the same thing. I mean, both guys are first-ballot Hall of Famers. Both guys have a high-powered offense and we've just got to do our best to minimize the big plays and make plays when the ball's in the air," Porter said.
The Broncos had a half dozen takeaways in their last game, and half of those were by Chris Harris and Tony Carter in relief of Porter, who stayed behind in Denver and watched the Broncos score five unanswered second-half touchdowns in their 35-24 win against the Chargers.
"Oh man, that's exactly what those guys are supposed to do," Porter said. "I mean, they come in, they step up, they take up my slack. I was jumping up off the couch when those guys intercepted the ball. I wanted to be a part of it, but those guys are my teammates so I'm not mad that they did it and I didn't."
The Broncos returned from their bye Monday to discover the NFL was investigating whether the Chargers used a banned sticky substance during their game last week.
"I'm sure the league has their ways of dealing with it and they'll let us know the outcome," Fox said.
Chargers coach Norv Turner said Monday that nobody from the Chargers used Stickum, which was banned by the league in 1981, in the loss to the Broncos on Oct. 15 or in any other game. He said the league is looking into a towel that the team uses to dry the ball, the gloves worn by players and their arms.
Either way, "we still beat them, so it doesn't matter," said Bruton, who said the Broncos players weren't aware of anything being amiss during the game.
"I didn't even hear about it until it was just brought to my attention like five minutes ago," Bruton said.
The Broncos were careful not to make any comments on the Chargers' sticky situation that could be used as bulletin board fodder for their rematch Nov. 18 in Denver.
"I'm not worried about what the Chargers do — especially this week," linebacker Keith Brooking said. "We have a great opponent coming to town in the New Orleans Saints, so that's what we're focusing on."
Notes: Porter was cleared only for non-contact work Monday and said he hopes to be back without restrictions Wednesday. ... LB D.J. Williams is hanging around the team during his 3-game suspension for an alcohol-related driving conviction, unlike during his 6-game ban for performance-enhancing substances to start the season, when he wasn't allowed at team headquarters. He seems to have been welcomed back. "He's a great teammate," DE Elvis Dumervil said. "Sometimes people make mistakes, but he's definitely a great guy to have in the locker room."
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