BRONCOS (4-10) AT RAMS (4-10)
When: Sunday, 1:30 p.m.
Where: SoFi Stadium
TV/radio: CBS (Ch. 2); 1110 AM; 93.1 FM; 980 AM (Spanish); Sirius 83, 225
Line: Broncos by 3 points
Notable injury designations: Rams: DL Aaron Donald (out; ankle), C Brian Allen (out; calf), WR Ben Skowronek (out; calf), QB John Wolford (out; neck), DL Marquise Copeland (out; ankle), LB Travin Howard (out; hip), LB Jake Gervase (out; ankle)
Broncos: OLB Randy Gregory (questionable; knee), WR Courtland Sutton (questionable; hamstring), RB Latavius Murray (questionable; foot), WR Kendall Hinton (out; hamstring), OG Dalton Risner (questionable; shoulder/back/foot), CB K’waun Williams (questionable; wrist/knee)
What’s at stake? Another chance for the Rams to evaluate inexperienced players, such as rookie running back Kyren Williams, second-year wide receiver Tutu Atwell and third-year tight end Brycen Hopkins. Quarterback Baker Mayfield has plenty of experience, but the Rams are also evaluating him because he’s scheduled to become a free agent in the offseason and they might be considering him as a quality backup for injured starter Matthew Stafford. Mayfield can help his case and gain attention from other teams if he’s able to conduct a few productive offensive performances to end the season and help develop the Rams’ inexperienced players in the process. But that will be tough against the Broncos’ stout defense, which is only allowing 18.1 points per game, the third-best average in the NFL. The Rams’ offensive line struggled to protect Mayfield against the Green Bay Packers on Monday night, leading to one of their worst offensive outputs in a disappointing season.
Who’s better? Like the Rams, the Broncos also have one of the worst offenses in the NFL, which is one of the biggest surprises of the season. But the Broncos are considered the better team this week because they have a talented defense that features Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Surtain and former All-Pro safety Justin Simmons. Many expected the Broncos to be Super Bowl contenders after the arrival of quarterback Russell Wilson, but it’s been an uphill battle for them most of the season. The Rams can relate, but Denver at least has Wilson and No. 1 wide receiver Jerry Jeudy. The Rams will be without Stafford, center Brian Allen and wide receivers Cooper Kupp, Allen Robinson and Ben Skowronek.
Matchup to watch: Wilson against Rams middle linebacker Bobby Wagner. The two spent 10 years together with the Seattle Seahawks and did plenty of winning, including hosting a Super Bowl trophy. Wagner recalled earlier this week that he frequently told Wilson during practices that he’s lucky that he’s wearing a red jersey and not allowed to touch him. That won’t be the case on Sunday when they reunite at SoFi Stadium. This will be a chess match between two players who are very familiar with each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
Rams prepare to face Broncos’ stout defense, Russell Wilson on Christmas Day
Alexander: Rams’ Fan of Year nominee cheers with a purpose
Rams’ Aaron Donald ‘probably not’ returning this season
Rams’ Bobby Wagner finally gets his chance to sack Russell Wilson
Eliminated Rams focus on player evaluations, but that’s also been a challenge
Rams win if: … Wide receivers Van Jefferson, Brandon Powell and Atwell are able to make plays against the Broncos’ standout secondary. With the Rams not having a true No. 1 wideout available – Kupp is on injured reserve – that will likely allow Surtain opportunities to roam the field and create plays. Surtain, a Pro Bowl starter, might be the best lockdown corner in the league this season. But the Rams’ offensive line will also need a bounce-back performance to allow Mayfield enough time to connect with his receivers. Mayfield was sacked five times and hit nine times against the Packers.
Fantasy sleeper: This is a long shot and you probably shouldn’t use it as advice for your fantasy football playoff matchups, but if you’re in the consolation bracket, go ahead and take a chance on Williams, the Rams’ fifth-round rookie from Notre Dame. Rams running back Cam Akers has gotten the bulk of the carries lately, but Coach Sean McVay said earlier this week that he wants Williams to be more involved in the offense. This could be the week when McVay finally gives WIlliams more than 10 carries. It’s a tough matchup against the Broncos, but at some point Williams needs a chance to flash his potential.
Prediction: The Rams will need to sustain long drives to evaluate their inexperienced players on offense, but that likely won’t happen against the Denver defense. Both offenses will struggle, but Surtain will return a Mayfield interception for a touchdown to give the Broncos a 16-10 victory. Beat reporter’s record: 10-4 this season; 6-7-1 against the spread.