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NFL Preview - Denver (7-2) at St. Louis (3-6)



By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor

(SportsNetwork.com) - It all depends on how you look at things.

If you're a statistics nut, you can look at the No. 27 ranking in points allowed per game (27.9) and No. 25 ranking in rushing yards allowed (124.2) and assume the St. Louis Rams are in a world of hurt this weekend when they host the Denver Broncos.

Or, you can recognize that the Rams have registered a league-best 16 sacks since Week 7, including eight against San Francisco in their first November outing and three more last week on the road against Arizona and think it might be Peyton Manning who's in for a long day at the Edward Jones Dome.

Defensive end Robert Quinn has six of the aforementioned 16 sacks in the last four games and will be the leader of a pack whose aim on Sunday will be finding a way to slow down the preposterously prolific Manning in his 16th (healthy) NFL season.

The 38-year-old threw five touchdowns in a 41-17 defeat of Oakland last week, has at least two TD passes in 15 straight games and at least one in 48 straight - the third- longest streak in league history.

In three career meetings with the Rams, he's got five touchdowns and one interception.

"I can't remember a time when he was playing any better," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "He's playing his best ball right now. He's got great people around him, he's really got a good feel, he's not going to take a sack, he's not going to make a bad decision. It's very, very difficult to defend."

Tight end Julius Thomas caught his 12th TD pass of the season against Oakland, tying Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Frank Clarke and Bill Groman as the only players to reach that number in nine games. No other tight end has ever caught 12 scoring passes in two straight seasons.

"They've done an outstanding job of putting outstanding players around (Manning)," Fisher said. "This is the best cast of playmakers he's ever had, and obviously the results are showing that."

As for the Rams' results, well... let's just say they're a little different.

St. Louis has averaged 11.3 points and 212.3 yards in its last three games, with quarterback Austin Davis completing just 57 percent of his passes for three touchdowns, five interceptions and 481 yards.

Fisher said Wednesday that veteran Shaun Hill will start against Denver.

In his lone appearance this season, Hill was 8-for-13 for 81 yards and an interception in a 34-6 loss to Minnesota in Week 1.

"Obviously it sparks your excitement a little bit and all those things," Hill said, "but as far as preparation goes, everything's the same."

Running the ball may not be an option for the Hill-led attack, considering that the Rams haven't exceeded 91 yards on the ground in their last three games after going for 102 or better in four of their first six. Denver is the NFL's best team at stopping the run, to the tune of 67 yards per game.

On the flip side, the Broncos have a handful of rushing options to complement Manning's aerial circus act. Montee Ball is anticipated back for the first time since Week 5 and the Broncos are coming off a game in which C.J. Anderson accounted for 163 total yards against Oakland - including a 51-yard TD on a screen pass and a career-best 90 run yards on 13 carries.

It's almost enough to make you forget that Ronnie Hillman, who has a pair of 100-yard rushing games this season, will miss the St. Louis contest with a sprained foot.

Denver is 26th in the league with an average of 96.8 rushing yards per game, but the Broncos have gone for 115 or more yards on the ground in four of the last five games - and have surpassed 100 yards in five of nine games. They only ran for 43 in a 43-21 loss at New England in Week 9.

"We've been pretty fortunate to have some guys stepping in and doing a good job," coach John Fox said. "It's a tribute to those guys being on top of their craft."

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Punish that Man(ning)

Last season, each of Denver's three losses came in games where Manning's yards per pass attempt were among his five lowest averages of the season. In order to stay remotely competitive this weekend, the Rams must create havoc and force No. 18 to deliver the ball before he wants to, thereby limiting his down-the-field options. Quinn frequently getting his hands on Manning is a must-have for St. Louis.

Running Men

Whether it's by utilizing Zac Stacy and Tre Mason off the current roster - or finding someone who can channel the Eric Dickerson and Marshall Faulk efforts of years past - the Rams simply must find a way to run the ball. Hill hasn't started since Week 1 and he's not likely to win the game with his arm, so churning out yardage (and keeping Manning of the field) is the offensive key to the vault.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

OK, let's be realistic here. Is it possible the Rams win? Sure. Even the best teams in the NFL typically lose three or four games every season. But given just about every existing reality, it seems awfully unlikely that St. Louis has the stuff to compete for 60 minutes. Unless there's an injury or unless Denver starts producing turnovers at the rate it's been producing points, it doesn't look good for the home side.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Broncos 31, Rams 17

11/13 10:32:08 ET

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