Rams crush Broncos, leave injuries in wake
The Denver Post
ST. LOUIS — Peyton Manning stood on the sideline late in the fourth quarter, rocking from side to side, hands on hips. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase saddled next to him, hand on chin.
No conversation was necessary. The scoreboard told the ugly truth of the Broncos’ most odious regular-season performance in Manning’s tenure in Denver.
The scoreboard read: St. Louis Rams 22, Denver 7. The fallout was even more unnerving. The Broncos never have won when Manning didn’t play well, and that alarm blared again Sunday. The Broncos’ goal of a championship faces chilling problems because of an ineffective offensive line and a plethora of injuries, including wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (concussion) and tight end Julius Thomas (ankle).
Even before Sanders left in the third quarter, the victim of a brutal hit by Rodney McLeod, the day game became a nightmare, litter replacing the glittered speckled of potential AFC dominance. Forget regaining homefield advantage for the playoffs. Kansas City is now tied with Denver atop the AFC West, both teams 7-3.
The Broncos own bigger problems. They struggled to gain a first down at times. They penetrated the Rams’ 30-yard line only two times, looking helpless and hurt, unable to execute after injuries and penalties.
Denver was white-knuckling hope late in the fourth, trailing 19-7.
With a fourth-and-three from the 28-yard-line, Manning surveyed the Rams’ defense. The defenders frothed as they had all day. Rather than bring pressure up the gut, Rams coach Jeff Fisher pulled a blitz out of his sleeve. Defensive end Robert Quinn, a monster in his last five games, lined up to Manning’s left. On the snap, Quinn circled toward the center, slicing untouched through the vacancy. Manning was sacked, leaving the Broncos unraveled and frazzled with 9:41 remaining.
The margin felt wider given the medical concerns and the compromised offensive line, which was penalized frequently and never could get push in the running game.
Denver knew a challenge existed at Edward Jones Dome because of St. Louis’ defense. That the Rams were the ugly guy in the fight didn’t hurt either. They didn’t have anything to lose except a better draft position.
Desperation goes beyond winking at a gap-toothed bar patron at closing time. With but three victories the Rams played with equal doses of urgency and freedom. On their first drive, the Rams showed why they beat the Seahawks and 49ers. They marched for a field goal, and in a phrase repeated, it could have been worse as Shaun Hill threw behind Kenny Britt on a 33-yard completion.
The juxtaposition surfaced early. Denver’s first drive stalled on a 1-yard completion to Julius Thomas. He didn’t return, suffering an ankle injury. It was the first of a series of dizzying injuries. Running back Montee Ball exited in the second quarter after injuring his right groin for the second time in three series, dropping a critical pass in the process. And Sanders, who earlier set a single-season high with seven touchdown receptions, departed with a concussion in the third quarter, absorbing a violent hit by McLeod, who was flagged for unnecessary roughness.
The idea of an upset became real in the fourth quarter with the Broncos trailing 16-7. Without weapons and playing behind a struggling offensive line, Manning looked for Jacob Tamme, the only healthy tight end with Virgil Green out with a calf issue. E.J. Gaines blitzed and Manning rushed his throw as he was hit. Alec Ogletree undercut the route and intercepted the pass.
Denver’s defense held St. Louis to a field goal. And while the unit was oddly passive, giving Hill plenty of time to pick out targets, it stiffened enough to give the Broncos gasps of breath. The Rams entered the red zone three times, and netted only three field goals from Greg Zuerlein during one stretch. He remained the Rams’ best weapon, while Broncos kicker Brandon McManus remained invisible. Denver passed on 55 and 56-yard field-goal attempts in the first three quarters, making the choice in the fourth quarter obvious for Manning.
He couldn’t avoid a sack. And the Broncos can’t escape questions about where they go from here.
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