DENVER -- Sunday night's 34-14 win over the New Orleans Saints was one of the Broncos' best all-around performances of the season.
Denver recorded more than twice as many first downs as the visiting Saints, held a 10-plus minute advantage in time of possession and outgained New Orleans 530 to 252. One aspect that stood out in a dominant team effort was the Broncos' running attack, which piled up 225 yards on 41 carries, good for an average of 5.5 yards per carry. That output is easily the team's highest of the season, 60 yards better than the previous high of 165, which came vs. Oakland.
Leading the way was Willis McGahee, who turned in a season-best 122 yards rushing and a touchdown on 23 carries. He led all players with eight rushing first downs in Week 8 action.
"I knew we were going to have a good day," McGahee said. "We just showed glimpses of what our offense can do when we all work together."
McGahee was complemented by a career night from rookie running back Ronnie Hillman, who picked up 86 yards on 14 carries, including a game-high run of 31 yards. With 41 handoffs compared to 30 pass attempts, the Broncos' balanced attack rolled up more than 500 yards of total offense and kept the New Orleans defense guessing throughout the night.
"Our running game really came alive tonight," quarterback Peyton Manning said. "I thought that's really where it sort of set the tone for us, offensively. The offensive line, tight ends - Joel (Dreessen) and Virgil (Green) and Jacob (Tamme) were outstanding. Willis and Ronnie (Hillman) made some great runs."
The Broncos' ability to pick up big yards on the ground did more than wear down the defense and keep quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints' offense sidelined. It also played a big role in Manning's ability to find open receivers downfield. Manning completed seven passes of at least 20 yards, including four to wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, and said much of that success was due to the attention the Saints had to devote to the Broncos' ground game.
"All of the deep passes were off play action," Manning said. "If you're not running the ball well, there's no reason for a defense to bite on play action. Because we were running it effectively we got the safeties and linebackers to bite and got DT down the field a couple times."
DEFENSE STANDS TALL
Against a Saints offense that entered Sunday night's contest with the NFL's top-ranked passing attack, the Broncos knew they would need their best effort. They got exactly that, limiting Brees to a season-low 213 yards passing on 42 attempts.
"It is hard to do that," cornerback Champ Bailey said. "I have to give a lot of credit to the coaches and my teammates because we have really been honing in this week trying to make sure we are doing our jobs and do it full tilt. We haven't put together four quarters like we did today. We hate that he gets that last touchdown but that is one of the best in the game and he is going to make plays. You just have to limit him and I think we did that well today."
One of the keys to the team's defensive effort was its ability to take away the deep ball. Brees' longest completion of the night was a 29-yard touchdown pass to running back Darren Sproles, with most of that yardage coming after the catch.
"We knew coming into the game that they like to take shots," linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. "We wanted to make them check it down. That's something that we had to do and be on top of the game plan."
Defenses are often judged by how they perform on third down. One of the Broncos' issues in their losses early in the season was difficulty getting off the field on third down. The defense responded with one of its best efforts of the season in that department Sunday against the Saints, allowing New Orleans to convert just 1-of-12 on third down.
"We had prepared for third downs," linebacker Von Miller said. "We were ranked 29th in the league on third downs and there was no way we should be ranked that high. We have all the personnel on this team. We have Champ (Bailey) and Elvis (Dumervil) and all these guys. We never had too much success on third downs and that was our mindset coming in was getting off the field on third downs. I think that was a key to the game today."
In addition to holding Brees to his lowest yardage total of 2012, the Broncos were also stout against the run, surrendering just 51 yards on the ground.
"We just continued to believe in each other," Woodyard said. "Our coaches told us to believe in ourselves and make plays. Our players, the D-line, they played a great game. I think those guys got 40, 50 yards rushing. They got a few breaks here and there, but we just played together as a team, and that's what it's all about."
Overall, it was an effort that left the Broncos the opposite of complacent.
"We've still got to continue to get better," Woodyard said. "We don't want to be satisfied with what we did tonight. We want to come back next week and show the same thing."
Nine tackles. A sack. An interception. A forced fumble.
Those numbers usually mark a stellar game-high total for a defensive player. Sunday against New Orleans, that's what Woodyard totaled before halftime.
By the time the Broncos wrapped up their 34-14 victory over the Saints, Woodyard had a game-high 13 tackles and a pass deflection. Woodyard's effort included his second interception of the year, a leaping grab of a Brees pass over the middle on fourth-and-2.
"He's a great player," Woodyard said of Brees. "They ran that play earlier in that drive, and I wasn't there to make that play. So I knew I had to come back and make something happen."
On a defense most known for Bailey, Miller and defensive end Elvis Dumervil, it was Woodyard who stood out throughout Sunday night's game.
"Wood doesn't get enough credit," Miler said. "I think Wood can definitely get a lot more credit. He's a superstar on this team. He's been playing consistently for a really long time now, and I think he has a lot more room for improvement, just like everybody else, and today just showed a little spark of what he can give us on this team."
His performance came as no surprise to Bailey, either.
"That's what he does," Bailey said. "He's been making plays all year. Double-digit tackles is easy for him. I expect more out of him, to be honest with you, because I know what he can do. I've seen him do it in practice several times. He's just hungry and he's young and I love that about him."
After the game, Woodyard deflected credit to his defensive linemen.
"My D-line clicked," Woodyard said. "Before the game, they told me they were going to keep me free, let me go around and make plays. That's what it's all about — playing as a team, dedicating yourself to one another."