DENVER -- The dinged-up thumb. The New Orleans defense. Neither came close to slowing down Peyton Manning on Sunday night.
Despite banging his throwing thumb on an opponent's helmet in the second quarter, Manning passed for 305 yards and three scores, led a pair of 90-plus-yard touchdown drives and easily outplayed Drew Brees to lead the Denver Broncos to a 34-14 victory over the Saints.
Manning surpassed the 300-yard mark for the fifth straight time to match his personal best and set a franchise record for Denver (4-3). He completed 22 of 30 throws for a passer rating of 138.9. Willis McGahee ran for 122 yards and a score for the Broncos, who won two in a row for the first time this season and took sole possession of first place in the AFC West.
"It's fine," Manning said about his thumb. "As a quarterback, your biggest fear is hitting your hand on the helmet of a defensive lineman. It's mostly the nail. Might be sore tomorrow."
Coming in on a two-game winning streak of its own, New Orleans (2-5) was hoping to get a boost from the return of linebackers-turned-interim head coach Joe Vitt from his six-game suspension for the team's bounty scandal. All he can do is stand on the sidelines, though, and linebacker Jonathan Vilma -- another Saint implicated in the scandal -- returned to the starting lineup, but he couldn't plug the holes, either.
"I've got to do a better job of preparing our football team," Vitt said. "I've got to do a better job of getting the team ready physically, mentally and emotionally to play in a game like this. And quite frankly, there's things I need to do better."
The Broncos held Brees and the league's top passing offense to 213 yards and two scores, the second marking the first points Denver has allowed in the fourth quarter since opening week.
Brees extended his record to 50 straight games with at least one touchdown pass. He also reached 301 career touchdown passes to climb past John Elway for sixth on the career list.
"That was a very poor performance on our part," Brees said. "We were not able to sustain drives and we left our defense out there entirely too long. That was just very stale."
"This football team has been through a lot," Vitt said. "But it's not an excuse for the way we played tonight. It's not an excuse for dropped balls, missed tackles."
Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard did extensive damage, finishing with 13 tackles, two pass breakups, one sack, one forced fumble and one interception, when Vitt chose to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the Denver 47 early in the second quarter with the game tied at 7.
"They told me before the game they would keep me free to make plays," Woodyard said.
Manning capitalized on Woodyard's pick by leading Denver on a 56-yard drive for the go-ahead touchdown, capped on a 13-yard pass to Eric Decker, who was all alone when Jabari Greer slipped. Decker celebrated by spiking the ball a good 10 rows into the stands.
A bit later, Manning followed through into a New Orleans player's helmet while completing a 23-yard pass to Decker, leaving a trace of blood across the quarterback's thumb. Manning handed off the next four plays and the Broncos settled for a field goal before halftime. But when Manning returned for the third quarter, he warmed up with no trouble and showed no signs of injury.
He then answered any questions by going 4 for 4 to start the third quarter, moving the Broncos 93 yards and capping it with a 1-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas for a 24-7 lead.
"I was really nervous at first but then I realized what a tough guy he is," Broncos receiver Brandon Stokley said about Manning's injury.
Thomas finished with seven catches for 137 yards. Decker also caught a 2-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter for a 31-7 lead. He finished with 43 yards receiving.
Denver's first scoring drive opened at the 2 and began with four straight runs by McGahee for gains of 4, 12, 7 and 3. That set up play action and Manning hit Thomas for 41 yards. Five plays later, Manning dropped back, peaked through the crowded line and somehow picked out McGahee among all the big men clogging things up. That little flip screen was good for 14 yards and set up McGahee's 1-yard touchdown run to open the scoring.
After getting through the toughest part of their schedule and reaching the bye week at 4-3, the Broncos have only one opponent on the rest of the schedule that currently has a winning record (Baltimore). Too early to call them front-runners, though they certainly played like it against one of the league's most beleaguered teams.
"I'm sure the coaches will find some mistakes on the film," Manning said. "But it was what we were looking for."
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press