To Dodge Upset, Broncos Must Play Ram Tough

For the most part of two quarters Sunday, the Denver Broncos were out-executed, outplayed and outclassed by the winless Oakland Raiders, but eventually, tailback C.J. Anderson and cornerback Bradley Roby made plays to turn the tide en route to a 41-17 victory last Sunday.

With all of this said, the Broncos, at 7-2, are still in serious contention for home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs and the next step for them in their quest takes them to the Gateway to the West against the St. Louis Rams.

The Broncos have an interesting past in St. Louis, having never won a game there, sporting an o-2-1 record in the city all-time and have lost road games to the Rams in the city in both 2000 and 2006.

Thus, if Denver is successful on this road trip, it gives signal-caller Peyton Manning another fascinating feather in his cap. Now, the Rams, sporting a record of 3-6, have not had a successful season obviously, but have the chance to play spoiler against several playoff contenders down the stretch, such as Seattle and Arizona.

For whatever reason, as reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Jim Thomas, head coach Jeff Fisher is going with reserve signal-caller Shaun Hill rather than Austin Davis, despite Davis having better statistics in every significant category.

Furthermore, in significant offensive and defensive statistics, the Rams’ highest ranking is in passing yards surrendered per game as they are 13th in that category at 234.3 yards allowed per game in the air.

The leading tailback, Tre Mason, is averaging 4.3 yards per carry, while Arkansas State product Benny Cunningham is the leading touchdown scorer among tailbacks on the roster, with three scores.

At sundry times this season, the Rams have used Cunningham in trick plays, such as when punter Johnny Hekker threw a pass to him in an upset victory over the Seattle Seahawks, which enabled St. Louis to bleed the clock while defending the lead.

The leading receivers, wideouts Brian Quick (25 rec, 375 yards, 3 TD’s) and Kenny Britt (21 rec, 312 yards, 2 TD’s), as well as tight end Jared Cook ( 31 rec, 427 yards, 2 TD’s) have suffered from the Rams’ lack of quarterback continuity and may be further impaired by Fisher’s decision to go with Hill, time will tell.

Defensively, rookie defensive tackle Aaron Donald leads the team with 3 sacks, while the Rams are tied with Kansas City at the bottom of the league standings in interceptions with four.

Linebacker Alec Ogletree, cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and E.J. Gaines and safety Rodney McLeod have one interception apiece, so if the Broncos play wisely, they should not have a turnover problem as they have had the last two weeks against the New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders.

Meanwhile, Manning continues to be his magnificent self, even if some Broncos fans may get angry with him from time-to-time. When Manning puts up big statistics, it’s fascinating but the numbers never seem to lie. Conversely, they only seem to enhance his magnificence.

Presently, Manning is third in passing yards (2,912), first in passing touchdowns (29), second in passer rating (112.0), second in passing yards per game (323.6), second in passing touchdown percentage of passes (8.2) percent and perhaps best of all, is sacked an NFL-best 2.49 percent of the time.

After all of these years, Manning’s dexterity and adroitness in releasing the ball swiftly serves him better than many quarterbacks of the past, such as John Elway and Steve Young, whose bodies broke down on them.

In fact, in order to negate St. Louis’ fearsome pass rush, it would seem likely, based on his past, that Manning will throw swift crossing routes in order to negate pressure which is naturally perpetrated by the artificial surface and crowd noise that can be found at St. Louis’ Edward Jones Dome.

Additionally, his targets are playing well as  wideouts Emmanuel Sanders (fourth in receptions and seventh in receiving yards in NFL annals) and Demaryius Thomas (third in receptions and second in receiving yards in the NFL)  are increasingly productive as the season progresses.

Their efforts have been highly instrumental in helping the Broncos become the NFL’s second-best scoring offense (31.8 points per game), third in net yardage (414.7 yards) and second in passing yards per contest (317.9 yards). Additionally, tight end Julius Thomas, with two touchdown receptions Sunday at Oakland, is tied atop the NFL touchdown standings at 12, with Seahawks tailback Marshawn Lynch.

Speaking of tailbacks, with Ronnie Hillman sidelined for a couple of weeks and Montee Ball still trying to find his way (some factions of the Broncos’ fan base, known as Broncos Country, are growing highly impatient with him), so perhaps C.J. Anderson (163 all-purpose yards Sunday at Oakland) may get more looks.

Defensively, the Broncos are 10th in the NFL at sacks, having amassed 24, while the star duo of defenders, linebacker Von Miller and defensive end DeMarcus Ware have combined for 17 so perhaps they may benefit from the fast track of St. Louis as well. Because of Manning’s recent interception problems (a combined 4 INT’s against New England and Oakland), the turnover ratio has dropped to +4, but the Broncos are still effectively taking the ball away, having forced 12 turnovers in their first 9 games.

Sunday presents a great chance for Denver to turn things around as the Rams are -5, having given up 16 turnovers and with the Broncos sporting an opportunistic defense, this could be another big factor in the game.

Additionally, the Broncos retain the #1 rushing defense in the league, giving up only 67 yards per contest and are fifth in net yards surrendered at 314.1 yards. Areas in need of improvement defensively include scoring defense (15th in the NFL at 22.4 yards per game) and 19th in passing yards surrendered at 247.1 yards.

In closing, this is one of those games that the Broncos should win on paper, but I would highly anticipate the Rams playing the game of their lives in hopes of knocking off a legitimate contender and Fisher is still among the great strategists in the history of the game.

With this said, I would exhort fans of the NFL to tune into the game, if for nothing more, because CBS announcers Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts, some of the best in the business, are calling the action. In the NFL, anything can happen any given Sunday so tune in during the early window and see what happens.