The grueling eight-game stretch—Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Kansas City Chiefs, San Francisco again and Arizona Cardinals—will feature Denver as the finale, and then the schedule gets (slightly) easier a week later against the San Diego Chargers.
It's impeccable timing. After St. Louis' 31-14 loss to Arizona this past week—a game the Rams were shockingly winning several minutes into the fourth quarter—the Gateway fans are begging for mercy.
That mercy will come. But first, the Rams must overcome Peyton Manning and his dangerous aerial assault—a challenge that could leave the Rams humiliated if they're not prepared.
This article will look at the key matchups in the upcoming game, which should give you an idea of what the Rams need to accomplish in order to give Denver a good fight.
Rams Pass Rush and Peyton Manning
Last week, the Rams pass rush rattled Carson Palmer, who had not been sacked more than twice in a game prior to St. Louis' three-sack performance. That's something the Rams defense must repeat.
Like Palmer, Manning has yet to be sacked more than twice in a single game. He's a veteran who knows how to adjust to pressure and implement hot reads. But even so, the pressure will put him at a disadvantage—it'll force mistakes (something even Manning isn't immune to), and it will make it harder to go downfield.
It's no coincidence that all three of Denver's losses in 2013 were also three of Manning's five worst games in yards per attempt. When the pass rush forces Manning to have a quick release, it takes away the downfield dominance that makes Manning's offense so dangerous.
And that's the message defensive end Robert Quinn must get across immediately in this game. He needs to let Manning know that holding onto the ball to look downfield is a big mistake, and that he'll pay the price for it.
The pass rush is St. Louis' best weapon, and it's one that must be utilized to its full extent if the Rams have any chance of besting the Broncos.
Terrance Knighton Clogging the Middle Against Scott Wells
Most people associate the Broncos with Manning and his aerial attack, but Denver also happens to own the best run defense in the NFL—a unit that's allowing just 67 rushing yards per game.
Part of that is due to Denver taking the lead every week, which forces opponents to abandon the run and air it out. But let's not sell the defensive players short. Terrance Knighton has been excellent at clogging the running lanes as Denver's nose tackle, and he'll be a nightmare for St. Louis' run game.
Center Scott Wells began his career with St. Louis in 2012, and his first two seasons were plagued with injuries—he missed 13 starts during that time. He has been able to stay on the field so far this season, but his play has clearly declined since his Pro Bowl days with the Green Bay Packers.
The 33-year-old Wells used to hold his own as a run blocker, even if he wasn't excellent at it. But his ability to push up front has been in question since Week 1. Additionally, his pass blocking, which used to be his strength, is also taking a sharp decline.
Knighton has been the anchor of the Denver defense. The fact that he's going head-to-head with perhaps the weakest link on the offensive line is a frightening thought for any St. Louis fan.
If Wells shows us early in the game that he's not up to the task, the Rams will have to make some quick adjustments. Don't be surprised if Knighton is double-teamed. Additionally, the Rams might put Lance Kendricks in a lead-blocking fullback role to help the offense get a little extra push up the gut.
Quarterback Austin Davis has been struggling in recent weeks, so it's very important that the Rams ignite the run game. It'll be tempting for St. Louis to abandon the run, especially if Denver takes an early lead. But that's something that can't happen.
Demaryius Thomas Versus Rams Secondary
The Rams have been a much-improved team when it comes to stopping the run. Unfortunately, Denver is one of the few teams capable of abandoning the run and playing a one-dimensional game, which means the St. Louis secondary has to step up.
The Rams have allowed just 25 completions of 20 or more yards this season—tied for the seventh-lowest total in the NFL. But opposing teams have been able to expose the Rams secondary by moving downfield in small chunks.
It's difficult to determine if the Rams are actually competent when it comes to keeping receptions under 20 yards or if offenses are resorting to the short pass simply because the Rams allow it. For St. Louis' sake, it better be the former.
Demaryius Thomas is second in the NFL with 16 receptions of 20 or more yards. If St. Louis can continue its trend of limiting those types of passes, it will really hinder the Denver offense.
However, the Broncos can light up a defense with short passes just as easily as downfield passes. So, not only will the Rams have to stop the deep ball, but they'll also have to do a better job of limiting the short passes by decreasing the cushions between the cornerbacks and receivers.
It'll be interesting to see how the Rams play Thomas—if they'll give him the short completions in an effort stop the long ball or if they'll gamble by playing him tight in an attempt to prevent both.
Either way, St. Louis' improved run defense isn't going to accomplish much against Denver. The Rams need to stop the pass, and limiting Thomas will help accomplish that.