This game is unusually difficult to predict for a couple of reasons. X-factor number one is the weather. Temperatures forecasted in the 20s with snow likely. X-factor number two is the fact Denver is a different team at home. Between the elevation and the crowd noise, Denver is a tough place to play. They very nearly knocked off Kansas City Chiefs in a Monday night game a couple of weeks ago. The Los Angeles Rams are a better team than the Broncos right now, and they should win, but this game is no walk in the park by any means.
Rams Offense vs. Broncos Defense
Coming into this season, this visioned on paper like a marquee matchup, but statistically speaking that is no longer the case. The Bronco's defense has been a colossal disappointment, ranked 26th in the league. All-world pass-rushing linebacker Von Miller had three sacks in Denver's opener but hasn't had another one since. You still have to account for him, of course, and if he breaks out like he is capable of doing, an upset alert might be in order. The Broncos top draft choice, Bradley Chubb, staffs the other outside linebacker position, and while this duo (especially Chubb) hasn't yet been the terror the Broncos envisioned going into this season, the talent is there. The ability of Rams tackles Andrew Whitworth and Rob Havenstein to control these guys is one of the key matchups that may decide who wins this game. Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. is one of the better players at his position and needs to play well for Denver to have a chance. Assuming Rams wide receiver Brandin Cooks plays (and most reports say he probably will after suffering a concussion against Seattle), he'll see a lot of Harris. Of course, any defense that faces the Rams also has to shut down receivers Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp (again, expected to play following a concussion last week), and the problem for Denver is that they only have one, Chris Harris. Cornerback Bradley Roby, a former first-round pick, has had his struggles this year, as has the Denver secondary in general. Denver's best pass defense may well be the weather. If it's as bad as expected, it could do what no NFL defense has done so far this year..dampen the Rams explosive passing attack. In which case, Denver could see a heavy dose of Todd Gurley. The Broncos gave up an astounding 326 yards on the ground against the New York Jets last week. No that's not a typo, and yes, Gurley is better than any running back the Jets have (no offense to Isaiah Crowell, but let's get real here). If Todd Gurley goes off, rushing for anywhere over 150 yards, this could get ugly. Even is he rushes for say, 125 yards and racks up another 75 yards in receiving, it likely spells victory for the Rams. The Bronco linebackers vs. Todd Gurley may well decide this game. If that happens, I like the Rams chances.
Rams Defense vs. Denver Offense
I fully expect Denver to take a page from the Seahawks playbook and go "ground and pound" in this game, especially if the weather is terrible. The Rams gave up almost 190 yards rushing last week in Seattle, and nearly lost a game they were expected to win handily. They have to do a better job this week; it's as simple as that. Bronco running backs Phillip Lindsey and Royce Freeman as at least as good as the Seahawks backs, but the good news is that Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips has had a week to address the problem. I also understand the Rams defense had a players-only meeting on the subject. Rams D-lineman Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh and Micheal Brockers (again, expected to play after some injury concerns) need to win their battles up front, and the Rams linebackers need to step up as a unit. Other than Corey Littleton, the linebacking crew has been a little disappointing. Inside linebacker Mark Barron returned to action last week and played reasonably well last week, considering he hadn't seen the field for a while. However, there are concerns about whether the cold weather may oppose a problem for his Achilles tendon, and we don't know at this point whether the will play or if so how much.
Outside linebackers Matt Longacre and Samson Ekubam will need to step up, both against the run but especially at rushing the passer. Rams cornerback Marcus Peters was pretty disappointing against Seattle, frankly looking lost on a couple of plays, and generally just having a bad day. He said his calf injury has healed, and he needs to play better, as does the secondary in general. The good news for the Rams pass-defense that Broncos quarterback Case Keenum is back to being whom we thought he was and not the MVP candidate we saw with Minnesota last season (at least so far). Denver does have some talent at receiver, but given the likely weather conditions along with Keenum's struggles, and not to mention Seattle's success running the ball last week, I am most concerned about stopping the Denver running game. It is worth noting that for all of the gnashing of teeth and general hysteria about the Rams defensive woes, they are still ninth in total defense. However, the rush defense is 18th, and that could be a problem if they don't play better on Sunday.
Edge: Rams (but they need to play better)
A mixed bag for the Rams last week. They blocked a punt, and Cairo Santos kicked what turned out to be the game-winning field goal, but the kickoff coverage could have been better. Johnny Hekker was closer to the Johnny Hekker we are used to, and in the mile-high elevation, he could be a real weapon, albeit hopefully one the Rams don't have to use too often. The Broncos special teams were just awful in 2017. While they seem a little better this year, I am going to check the box for the Rams here.
There are questions about Bronco coach Vance Joseph and his staff, and according to some media reports, even about team President/General Manager John Elway, although firing Elway seems almost unthinkable. However, last year's disappointing 5-11 finish combined with a lackluster 2-3 record this season certainly has the coaching staff on the proverbial "hot seat." Joseph has promised changes after last week's debacle of a loss in New York. On the other side of the field, of course, things are very different. Sean McVay is widely considered one of the best coaches in the league. Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips and Special Teams Coach John ''Bones" Fassel are likewise highly regarded. A significant advantage here for the Rams
I said at the outset that this game is somewhat hard to predict. The Rams are the better team in all phases of the game. However, they barely escaped Seattle last week with a win, and the combination of the weather, the elevation, and the typically loud Denver crowd could spell upset. However, talent and coaching usually win, and I predict they will take this week as well, although it could be a lower scoring game then people think.
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