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NFL Preview - St. Louis (4-6) at Denver (3-7)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Some games get Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. Others get Ron Pitts and John Lynch.
And so it goes this weekend for the St. Louis Rams and Denver Broncos, each of whom come into Sunday's matchup from Invesco Field at Mile High a week after taking double-digit losses in games where they were attempting to make a leap towards legitimacy against elite-level foes in their respective conferences.
The Rams were beaten, 34-17, by current NFC front-runner Atlanta in their last outing, though they did have the ball deep in Falcons' territory with a chance to get within two points before a botched shovel pass snuffed out the drive and eventually led to the bloated final margin.
St. Louis is still just a game off the pace in the NFC West, led by Seattle at 5-5. Not surprisingly, head coach Steve Spagnuolo is focusing on that nugget as the Rams, who won just once last season, attempt to stay afloat in their battle for respect.
"We're still in the thick of it, and that's the way we're going to look at it," he said. "We're going to focus on the prize we set out to accomplish at the beginning of the year, the NFC West."
In Denver, such a season-ending prize looms less large.
The Broncos swung and missed at a chance to reassert themselves in the AFC West race, falling by a 35-14 score to San Diego last Monday in a game that saw Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers tie a career high with four touchdown passes and the prolific Denver offense held to just 235 yards and 1-of-12 on third-down conversion attempts.
The Broncos are 3-7, three games off the pace set by Kansas City in the division and two games behind both the Chargers and Oakland Raiders.
But in spite of the dire straits, embattled head coach Josh McDaniels said he'll continue to resist calls to insert 2010 first-round draft pick Tim Tebow as the team's starting quarterback.
"I'm not willing to go there," said McDaniels when asked about Tebow's prospects. "That's not the case right now, so we will think about that when that happens. But it's not on our minds right now. We are still not out of anything yet, even though I know the standings don't look the way we would like them to look at this point.
McDaniels also had a response about what his team needs to do in order to gain ground on the rest of the division.
"That's [everybody] doing your job and every one of us is accountable to do that, and we've got to come in here and put forth our best effort, prepare hard and see what happens."
The Rams lead the all-time series with the Broncos, 7-6, breaking a deadlock in the set with an 18-10 home win in the 2006 regular season opener. Denver won the previous meeting, a 23-16 affair at Invesco Field at Mile High in 2002. The Rams are 0-3 in Denver since last winning there (as the Los Angeles Rams) in 1979, and the home team has won the last seven games in the series.
Spagnuolo and McDaniels will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
Though the excitement around rookie quarterback Sam Bradford makes sense, the Rams aren't exactly lighting the world up with their statistics. St. Louis is just 28th in the league in terms of scoring at 17.7 points per week, while their total yardage (305.7 ypg) and passing yardage (203.3 ypg) numbers are a pedestrian 27th and 24th, respectively, out of 32 teams. The Rams have run for 102.4 yards per week, 18th-best in the league.
Then again, it's not like Denver's stopped all that much. Foes of the Broncos have captured yards at a rate of 375.6 per game (26th in the NFL). The run defense has been particularly suspect, with Denver's per week rate of 143.5 yards allowed placing it 31st of 32 teams. Passers are riddling the Broncos for 232.1 yards per game (20th overall), while the points allowed rate per week (28.7) is just 30th-best.
Unusually accurate and composed for a youngster, Bradford has established a league record for first-year players with 169 straight passes without an interception. He's thrown for two or more touchdowns in three of his last four games. Behind him, workhorse runner Steven Jackson had 121 rushing yards and 140 from scrimmage in his last meeting with the Broncos. He's gone for 100 or more from scrimmage in 16 of his last 18 games with AFC foes. Wide receiver Danny Amendola has a touchdown reception in three of his past four games and looks for a sixth straight with at least six catches. Also streaking is fellow wideout Brandon Gibson, who scored once last week and aims for a fourth straight game with at least five catches.
For Denver, ageless cornerback Champ Bailey recorded his 30th interception with the Broncos last week and leads all players at his position with 48 picks since 1999. End Justin Bannan recorded his first sack as a Bronco in the loss to San Diego.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Whatever the Broncos' problems are, it'd be hard to pin them on quarterback Kyle Orton, who leads a Denver passing attack that's churned out an average of 284.1 yards per week -- fourth-best in the league. The Broncos score 21.7 points per game (19th overall) and gain overall yards at a rate of 359.9 per game (10th in the league). There's been a paucity of running success, however, as Denver is last in the NFL with an average of just 75.4 rushing yards per game.
St. Louis, meanwhile, is ninth-best in scoring defense (19.8 points) and 10th in stopping the run (101.8 ypg), though opposing passers have gone for a weekly average of 230.5 yards per game (19th overall). The total yardage rate of 332.3 allowed per game is middle of the road at 15th-best in the league.
In six games against NFC foes since joining the Broncos, Orton has completed 67.5 percent of his passes for 1,547 yards, 11 touchdowns and a 104.8 passer rating. He�s thrown 10 touchdowns to just two interceptions in home games in 2010. Running back Knowshon Moreno went for 120 scrimmage yards last week and caught a career-best seven passes in addition to a rushing touchdown. On the outside, standout receiver Brandon Lloyd reached 1,000 yards for the first time in his career and leads the NFL with 19 catches of 20 yards or more. He's scored in three straight games and has averaged 110 receiving yards against the NFC this year.
For the Rams, safety Oshiomogho Atogwe had a fumble recovery in his last encounter with the Broncos and has recorded 20 interceptions since 2006 -- fifth-most in the league. Linebacker James Laurinaitis has a sack in two of his last three games and end James Hall has 7 1/2 in his last nine. While with Detroit in 2003, Hall had a sack against the Broncos. Lastly, end Chris Long has five sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in his last five contests.
St. Louis' Jackson seems the most ideal play based on the game's matchups, though both Orton with Lloyd and Bradford with Amendola and Gibson have a chance at success as well against these iffy overall defensive units. Denver's Moreno became a little more versatile last week and may add value because of it.
Though both teams got a sense of their place when matched with league elites last week, they're more evenly accounted for this time around. The Broncos have been decent at home throughout a troubling season, but the demoralizing defeat to San Diego may have both ended their postseason hopes and dented the morale. The Rams hung in gamely against Atlanta, yet may drop a level on the road against a perceived lesser foe. So when nothing else screams otherwise, take the home team in a shootout.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 30, Rams 24
11/24 17:54:46 ET