Rollercoaster Ride Ends in St. Louis

The Packers season has resembled a kid let loose on the elevator inside the St. Louis arch. Down, up, down, up, down, up. It's time for the ride to end. If the Packers are indeed the team we thought they were, the team we saw in Houston, then they will dispatch of the young Rams and string two wins together for the first time this season.

They played their best game of the season in a game where they played with a chip on their shoulder. They need that chip to stay there. The defense completely shut down the Texans' vaunted running game and that is the first order of business against a Rams offense that still relies on the aging Stephen Jackson. He's averaged 113 and a TD in four games against the Pack.

The Rams' passing game is in the capable hands of Sam Bradford who finally has a legit coaching staff that he knows will be around a while. Despite moving the ball through the air against Miami, they are talent-challenged in the passing game. The loss of Danny Amendola to injury removes Bradford's most reliable receiver. The Rams' top guy would be sixth on the Packers' depth chart. Brandon Gibson has stepped up and become the go-to guy and rookie Chris Givens is a burner who Sam Shields would cover if he were healthy, but it doesn't look like he'll be able to go.

The Rams are also dealing with a makeshift offensive line that lost Scott Wells in the opener and is likely also without tackle Rodger Saffold. Both of their tackles are lousy and if the Pack forces them into passing situations they should be able to attack Bradford with the pass rush. In last year's win over the Rams at Lambeau, Bradford exited early with an ankle injury--something that will be in the back of his mind on Sunday.

The matchup to watch will be the Packers' offense against a much-improved Rams defense that has Jeff Fisher's fingerprints all over it. Like the Texans, the Rams have a pair of fearsome pass rushers in Chris Long and Robert Quinn. Their Brian Cushing is Wayzata's own James Laurinaitis, who's having a Pro Bowl season. This unit sacked Kevin Kolb nine times at home a couple of weeks ago, so they have the Pack's attention.

With Aaron Rodgers dealing with a sore calf, we'll see how he's able to move and use his legs, a component of his game that sets him apart from the Bradys and Brees's. He'll need them to extend plays against this unit, which ranks sixth in the league against the pass and fifth in opponent's QB rating. They've faced these QBs so far: Stafford, RGIII, Cutler, Wilson, Kolb and Tannehill. Three rookies in the bunch. As for the veterans, Stafford threw for 355 in the opener and Cutler had 183 in an easy victory at Soldier Field.

Fisher brought chippy, hard hitting Cortland Finnegan with him from the Titans and he has elevated the secondary. Rookie Janoris Jenkins, whose off field issued dropped him out of the first round looks like he will be really good if he can keep his head straight. These are tougher corners than the Texans put out there and we'll need to see another strong game from Nelson, Jones et al.

Let's talk about James Jones for a second. I've been harsh on the guy for years because of his maddening inconsistency. He and Rodgers always seem to have chemistry issues on the field. But the dude has stepped up big time in Greg Jennings' absence. Three straight multiple TD days is hard to accomplish and both of his scores last Sunday night were on terrific catches. With #85 still on the sidelines, possibly through the bye, Jones needs to keep it up.

The recipe on Sunday is to continue what they started last Sunday. On offense, get Alex Green involved early and keep that pass rush honest. There will be plays for Rodgers to make, especially against the third and fourth corners out there. I've got a feeling Jermichael Finley gets more snaps this week and an opportunity to put up big numbers--just a gut feeling.

Defensively, the depth will be tested. With DJ Smith out for the season, Brad Jones will get the first shot at the job but the team will use Francois and Lattimore too, depending on the situation. BJ Raji is practicing on a limited basis and has not yet been ruled out for this one--it would be nice to see the big guy back in there against a team that likes to run the ball. With Shields' likely out, we'll get to see if Casey Hayward is as ready as he appears to be. His two picks in limited action last week seem to confirm what we heard at the draft: he has terrific ball instincts and knows how to make up for his lack of corner speed.

After watching this offense explode last week and knowing how well it typically plays indoors, it's tempting to pick the Pack in a cakewalk. But the Rams are a classic Jekyll and Hyde team when it comes to home and away. They're 3-0 at home (over Washington, Seattle and Arizona) and the defense has been great in the Edward Jones Dome. Fortunately, there's liable to be 20,000 Packer fans there--that should help.

I think the Packers win, but it may not be as easy as we'd like.

Pack 24 Rams 20


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