DENVER – If the Denver Broncos and New Orleans Saints put on as compelling a show on the field as they do off of it, Sunday night's game should be a blockbuster.
The two teams that have captured the bulk of the NFL headlines for the past nine months — Denver by chasing, then landing, Peyton Manning, New Orleans for its bounty scandal — meet in what's being plugged as an entertaining, high-scoring shootout.
The Broncos (3-3) have Manning, who is on pace for a 4,800-yard season and, in Denver's last game, became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 300 yards, three touchdowns and complete 70 percent of his passes in three straight games.
Trying to keep pace with Manning is Drew Brees, who has grown used to trying to match teams point for point this season.
New Orleans (2-4) leads the league in passing yards but is last in rushing. On the other side of the ball, the Saints not only have the league's last-ranked defense, but they've given up more yards (2,793) than any team over the first six games since 1950, which is as far back as STATS LLC can search its NFL database.
"I feel like, in a lot of ways, those numbers don't tell the story," Brees said.
Indeed, you must look beyond the numbers to figure out the Saints this year. Almost every part of their 2012 resume so far — the pass-happy offense, the woeful defense, games decided by an average score of 30-29 — has been shaped by the uncertainty and turmoil that's surrounded them since the NFL penalized them for running a money-for-hits bounty pool.
The defense's emotional leader, linebacker Jonathan Vilma, will play for the second straight game this week but his future is cloudy because of the uncertain status of his season-long suspension, which has been put on hold while it's under appeal. The appeal itself has been the issue of this week, with the NFL looking to former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to decide the case and the players' union balking at that.
Meanwhile, Joe Vitt returns to the team as the interim head coach for the rest of the season. Vitt, normally the linebackers coach, is coming off his own six-game suspension and now takes over with New Orleans already four games behind undefeated Atlanta in the NFC South. The real head coach, Sean Payton, is suspended for the year. The Saints are also getting used to the scheme being run by first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
"At the end of the day, no one wants to hear our excuses," said Vitt, who wasted no time and rejoined the team for the flight back from last week's win in Tampa. "The thing is what it is. And we're going to be held accountable for our performance and we're going to be held accountable for our win-loss record and play the hand we're dealt."
Not a very good hand, to hear Brees tell it. Have the Saints been getting a raw deal this year?
"I think that's kind of obvious at this point, isn't it?" said the quarterback, who has thrown at least one touchdown pass in a record 49 straight games. "But for us, we're midway through the season here and we're focused on winning football games."
Though they've won two straight, the Saints still look very much like a team that needs to score four or five touchdowns to have a chance in any given game.
Sunday's over-under is 55½, a full eight points higher than the next highest game on the board in Las Vegas.
Manning and the Broncos are a big part of that, as well. They have the NFL's fourth-ranked passing game — partly a product of Manning, who has answered all questions about his health and arm strength after sitting out a year and becoming a free agent, and partly because Denver has had to play come-from-behind football in almost all its games so far.
The Broncos took that to an extreme last time they were on the field, two weeks ago in San Diego; they turned a 24-0 deficit into a 35-24 win, marking the first time in NFL history a team has trailed by that much and gone on to win by double digits.
"It certainly says something good about our team, that we can come back and we can score when we need to," Manning said. "But we're still looking for that 60-minute game, not that 30- or 40-minute game."
If the Saints could get even half a solid game out of their defense, it would be an improvement. A team that's giving up an average of 465 yards a game certainly isn't talking about shutting down Manning completely.
"You can try to get in his head, but more often than not you'll probably get in your own head and mess yourself up," safety Roman Harper said. "If you do the same thing two or three times, that's when he starts to get a bead on it."
None of the Broncos, meanwhile, want to hear about how badly the Saints have been struggling.
"What you can't do is get caught up in the hype," defensive lineman Kevin Vickerson said. "They've been under a lot of turmoil with the coaches and the bounty suspensions. But at the same time, it's still a group of good men over there. They've got a good team. But it's not really what they do. It's what we do."
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