Denver Broncos free safety Darian Stewart (26) tries to return an interception past New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram (22) in the first half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Nov. 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
NEW ORLEANS (AP) Broncos safety Darian Stewart was in the right place at the right time, as Denver defenders often seem to be.
Shutting down quarterback Drew Brees for four quarters was always going to be a tall order, particularly with starting quarterback Aqib Talib and starting defensive end Derek Wolfe injured. Still, Denver's dynamic defense produced four pivotal turnovers in a wild 25-23 victory over the previously surging Saints on Sunday.
''The Saints' offense is real tough and we knew that coming in,'' said Stewart, who had two interceptions and a fumble recovery . ''We had a lot of guys out injured, which only made the challenge more difficult. But we had a lot of guys who stepped in and made contributions. That was huge.''
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The game ultimately was decided in the unlikeliest of ways. Denver rookie Justin Simmons blocked a potential go-ahead, extra-point kick by New Orleans' Wil Lutz, and rookie teammate Will Parks grabbed the loose ball, returning it 84 yards for a defensive 2-point conversion with 1:28 left in the game.
Yet New Orleans might never have relinquished its 17-10, second-half lead if not for two fumbles forced by Denver's defense.
The Broncos, who entered the game with the top-rated pass defense in the NFL, intercepted Brees twice in the first half.
Stewart made his first interception by anticipating Brees' throw down the left sideline and cutting in front of intended target Travaris Cadet at the Denver 9-yard line. The second came when Stewart snagged a pass ripped from rookie receiver Michael Thomas' grasp by defensive back Bradley Roby.
In the fourth quarter, Stewart once again found a ball landing in his lap when Roby punched the ball away from Thomas after a reception over the middle.
''That's a play we work on,'' Roby said of his strip. ''In that situation, you have to say to yourself, `You've got to go for the ball.'''
Denver converted that turnover into Demaryius Thomas' game-tying touchdown.
Then came defensive end Jared Crick's crushing tackle of Thomas that forced another fumble, recovered by T.J. Ward to set up a field goal which put Denver ahead 23-17 with just under 3 minutes left.
Those plays helped Denver overcome Brees' NFL-record 56th game with at least 300 yards and three TDs passing.
''The four turnovers, they cost us the game,'' Brees said. ''It made it a lot closer than it probably should have been.''
Here's what else stood out in Denver's victory over the Saints:
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT: Simmons said Denver had picked up on some of the Saints' place-kicking tendencies and figured they might be able to block a kick by having a player hurdle the offensive line. Simmons said the Broncos worked on the play, called ''Leaper,'' all week.
''It's something you work on all the time,'' Denver coach Gary Kubiak said. ''It's risky to do because if you touch somebody, it's a penalty. There are certain situations in a game where you say it is worth the risk, and this was one of them.''
ELITE BREES: Brees passed for 303 yards with touchdowns on a 32-yard pass to Brandin Cooks , as well as 3- and 5-yard tosses to Willie Snead. He did it against a Broncos defense that entered the game allowing just 183.3 yards passing per game. Who knows what kind of numbers Brees might have had it three drives weren't stalled by turnovers in which the ball was knocked from Michael Thomas' hands?
MIXED BAG: The Broncos are still living with quarterback Trevor Siemian's rookie mistakes. He threw two interceptions and didn't seem to see cornerback Sterling Moore jumping the route on the first or Kenny Vaccaro standing right in the ball's path on the second. He also took six sacks. But he made a number of clutch throws – not just on his TD passes of 14 yards to Jordan Taylor and 2 yards to Demaryius Thomas. He also completed a slew of drive-extending throws and the Broncos converted 11 of 19 third downs.
BETTER BLOCKING: Two of Denver's best pass rushers – Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware – were held without a sack by a Saints offensive line that was missing starting left tackle Terron Armstead. Andrus Peat took over for Armstead, sliding over from left guard, and Senio Kelemete took Peat's guard spot. Denver, which came in with 28 sacks, managed just one on Brees, by linebacker Shaquil Barrett.
QB PRESSURE: New Orleans ramped up its pass rush in a big way. The Saints had 11 sacks in their first eight games, but six different defenders got a sack apiece on Siemian: rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, defensive tackle Nick Fairley, end Cameron Jordan, safety Kenny Vaccaro and linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Craig Robertson.
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