The Saints (2-4) are currently third in the NFC South, but have won two straight after their horrendous start. The Broncos are (arguably) their toughest opponent to date, but the Saints look like they're starting to hit their stride on both sides of the ball. Joe Vitt and Jon Wilma are back and their defense is finally holding up their end of the bargain.
The Broncos (3-3) are first in the AFC West and are one of the best teams in a weak AFC. Manning has made the difference for an offense that has jumped from 23rd to fourth in the NFL. Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas look like one of the better receiving tandems in the league and Willis McGahee still seems to be sipping from the fountain of youth.
So which of these teams goes home with a win on Sunday night?
Key Storyline No. 1: How Many Points Can These Teams Put Up?
These are two of the top passing offenses and two quarterbacks who can consistently work the ball down the field regardless of who's attempting to stop them. The Saints also have one of the weakest passing defenses, so it's almost certain that there will be extra possessions all around.
Add an injury to Tracy Porter that Brees is sure to pick on as well as a injury to middle linebacker Joe Mays, and all of a sudden this game looks like a barn burner.
Brees and Manning are sure to be at their best in this one. It's primetime, against a premium opponent and a game both team needs to win. It could end up being one of the highest scoring games of the 2012 season.
Key Storyline No. 2: Which QB is Taking His Team To the Next Step?
As mentioned above, both teams need this game.
The Saints are still floundering below .500 and have a ridiculous schedule coming down the pike. This primetime matchup might be one of the easiest games left, and if the Saints have playoff aspirations, they need to deliver.
The Broncos, too, need to hold serve in the AFC West. It's an easy division in the weaker of the two conferences, but they're tied with San Diego and only a game ahead of Oakland. Truth is, this could easily be a four-team race (yes, even the lowly Chiefs) at the end of the year. Denver doesn't have a signature win yet in 2012 and Sunday night is the perfect opportunity to add one to their resume.
Neither of these teams is winning without an elite performance from under center, so this matchup will go a long way toward proving which of these teams is ready to roll.
Keys for the New Orleans Saints on Offense
Spread it out.
The Saints can get into the habit of force feeding any one receiver. When Brees does that—whether it's Marques Colston, Darren Sproles or Jimmy Graham—the offense sputters and fails.
With Champ Bailey locking down one side of the field, it might be tempting to develop tunnel vision on the other side, but John Fox and Jack Del Rio have probably planned for that event and will likely have done their best to patch up that gaping hole (which is even worse if Porter is banged up or out.)
The Broncos (especially Von Miller) always have their ears pinned back and will be looking to rattle Brees early. The Saints need to work on quick passes to whoever is open, rather than look to "pick on" any one person more than the occasional shot down the field.
Keys for the Denver Broncos on Offense
Execution has been the biggest issue for the Broncos this season—whether it's been Manning throwing high against Atlanta, Decker's drops in Weeks 3 and 4, McGahee's fumbles or the up and down play of the offensive line, there just always seems to be one or two players not pulling their weight.
Obviously, the offense is doing just fine even with the hiccups, but eventually those mistakes need to stop.
Much like their opponents, it will be important for the Broncos to get rid of the ball early. The Saints' pass rush has been disappointing in 2012, but Manning has to know they're coming.
Expect a lot of shotgun and a lot of quick outs and slants.
Keys for the New Orleans Saints on Defense
As mentioned, the Saints' pass rush hasn't been what was expected this season. For a defense ostensibly built around getting pressure, that is an issue. With Vitt back, expect the Saints—especially the linebackers under Vitt's charge—to have worked on that. Look for a guy like Martez Wilson to have a blitz or two designed just for him on Sunday night to take advantage of a beatable Denver offensive line.
Keys for the Denver Broncos on Defense
The Broncos need to work on bending but not breaking on Sunday night.
Yes, this unit is the better of the two defenses in this game, but rolling out Keith Brooking is never a method to success, at least not since 2009. Against the Saints, with clear holes and a quarterback who can pick apart those holes, the Broncos need to be at their best.
Expect a bigger cushion than normal to account for the Saints' team speed and Von Miller may need to spend more time worrying about Sproles out of the backfield than simply rushing Brees over and over.
Bold Prediction: Darren Sproles Leads Saints in Both Rushing and Receiving
Sproles has led the Saints in both rushing and receiving at times this season, but has yet to do both in the same game. With Mays out, Sproles has one less run stuffer in the middle and one less guy moving sideline-to-sideline tracking him down.
The Saints have a great chance to win this game by working the Broncos horizontally and Sproles should be a big part of that.
Player of the Game Prediction: Drew Brees
As good as Sproles will be, Brees still isn't going to force-feed him. If he achieved 100 yards rushing and receiving, Sproles would get the prediction above, but Brees could easily have 300-plus passing and three or four passing touchdowns.
Brees should win the shootout with Manning and lock up player of the game honors in the process.
Final Score Prediction: New Orleans Saints 34, Denver Broncos 30
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."
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