ST. LOUIS --The Broncos' task is simple: emerge from a game that could be like putting a hand into a hornet's nest without being stung to the point of collapse.
The Rams are 3-6, compiling that mark against opponents that are a collective 49-33. Against the 8-1 Arizona Cardinals, they led 14-10 in the fourth quarter before quarterback Austin Davis melted down, with two interceptions and a fumble to end three consecutive drives, turning a close game into a runaway.
That, above all, led to the Rams benching Davis in favor of veteran Shaun Hill for Sunday's game -- being a single quarter away from beating the team with the league's best record.
"A team like this is very dangerous because if you go in there and you don't respect them, they can come out and they can beat you -- hit you in your mouth," said Broncos defensive tackle Marvin Austin Jr. "They can run the ball, they move the ball around, they've got some good players on the outside, and if you don't go out there and take care of what we have to take care of in practice, they can gash you and you can have a real sad day on Sunday."
That kind of day is what the Broncos cannot afford, with the surging Chiefs one game back in the AFC West and the Patriots holding the No. 1 seed in the postseason chase.
Kansas City already has its win over the Rams in its back pocket. For the Broncos to do the same, they must succeed at this week's Three Keys.
1. PROTECT PEYTON MANNING.
Denver's recently shuffled offensive line will have a challenge far sterner than the one it faced at Oakland last week -- an elite pass rusher off the edge (Robert Quinn) and a quick, powerful three-technique tackle on the inside (Aaron Donald) whose emergence in the pass rush helped the Rams convert their consistent pressure into sacks -- one every 9.69 pass plays in the last five games.
With tight end Virgil Green doubtful after not practicing all week because of a calf injury, the Broncos' options for fortifying the protection scheme remain limited. They could use an extra tackle and line him up as eligible, or tight end Julius Thomas in to help block, or rely on the running backs in protection more often.
2. DON'T LET SHAUN HILL GET COMFORTABLE.
In the 34-year-old veteran's successful moments over the years, he's gotten into a rhythm. But in the last extensive action he had, in the 2010 season, his completion percentage dropped to 47.6 percent when he was under pressure, per ProFootballFocus.com, although 11 of his passes in that scenario were dropped by Lions receiving targets.
Denver got pressure on Oakland's Derek Carr last week, and although it didn't result in sacks, the checkdowns and short passes set up the shuffled nickel defense to make plays, led by Chris Harris Jr. working in the slot and T.J. Ward working in a linebacker position, with Quinton Carter as one of the two safeties. Assuming Carter recovers from the illness that placed him on Saturday's injury report -- he is listed as probable -- the Broncos might try to force Hill into the same predicament.
3. WITHSTAND A RAMS SPURT.
In Week 3 against Dallas, the Rams took a 21-0 lead. In Week 5 at Philadelphia, the Rams closed the game with 21 consecutive points and had the football in the last two minutes with a chance to win. On Monday Night Football in Week 6, the Rams burst to a 14-0 first-quarter edge over San Francisco. A week later against Seattle, the Rams scored 21 consecutive points to go in front, 21-3.
The Rams lost all but one of those games. But they proved they can match the proficiency of established contenders, and in the case of the Seahawks game and a trip to San Francisco, they can beat them, through performance and tactically daring play, as witnessed on the trick-play punt return against Seattle.
If St. Louis plays up to form, it will have a stretch where it dominates. The Broncos must minimize the damage during that run of play, and have a sufficiently overwhelming reply if the Rams can rack up 14 or more points in succession.