While Elam does benefit slightly from the higher altitudes in Denver, he's still one of the best kickers of the last 25 years. Rackers had a good season last year and has been more consistent as of late, but he's still not in the same class as Elam. Scott Player for the Cardinals and Paul Ernster for the Broncos both average about 40 yards per punt and give their coverage teams decent hang times to work with.
Darrent Williams and Quincy Morgan are both average return men that won't fumble the ball away, but also are unlikely to do anything special. It's true that anything can happen on any play. Ask J.J. Arrington, who has done little on the return team since his 99 yard touchdown against Minnesota. And, as always, Troy Walters can field punts and not fumble them. His long return for the year is 37 yards. Don't expect another one of those out him in this game.
Since special teams appears to be dead even (with Denver holding a slight advantage because Elam is on their side), the Cardinals must exploit the considerable advantages they have on both sides of the ball.
On offense, Arizona may catch a break in that Darrent Williams, who plays opposite Champ Bailey, is questionable with a back injury and may not play. However, given how much Williams has struggled thus far this season, the Cardinals may want a banged up Williams over a healthy Domonique Foxworth. At any rate, the passing game should focus on staying away from Bailey, focusing on isolating their receivers on the poor covering safety tandem of John Lynch and Curome Cox.
They should focus their attack on the intermediate and deep areas of the field, using double moves to beat Bailey when they do throw to his side (double moves and pump fakes are his one weakness). Matt Leinart should have plenty of time to set his feet, pump fake, and throw, since Denver is one of the worst pass rushing teams the Cardinals have faced this season. And, Arizona has only allowed four sacks in the last five games.
They should stay away from screens, slants, and skinny posts, because those routes would lead them into the teeth of Denver's defense - linebackers D.J. Williams, Ian Gold, and Al Wilson. These three men will make enough plays in the running game and Arizona needs to make sure they don't get involved in the passing game.
Denver's defense revolves around their linebackers (in my opinion, the best in the league) and their ability to play solid man coverage, sound fundamental defense, and sure tackling. Where the Broncos struggle is against big, physical receivers that run crisp routes and explode out of their cuts. Two such receivers in the league are Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. However, Fitzgerald will most likely be covered by Bailey and Boldin matched up with Williams or Foxworth, so look for Boldin to have a big day and Bryant Johnson to get some big catches working against Denver's 3rd or 4th string cornerback.
Unless the Cardinals can strike early and often in the passing game and loosen up the defense, though, don't expect too much from the running game. Cardinals fans have gotten spoiled by the recent success of the run game and should remember that the offensive line is still coming together and that Michael Myers, Ebenezer Ekuban, Gerard Warren, and Kenard Lang are all very, very accomplished run defenders. And, the the linebackers are some of the fastest, strongest, best tacklers in the NFL. If, however, Edgerrin James is able to get to the second level (probably by somehow making one of the linebackers miss in the hole), he'll get yards in bunches, because tackling is not a strongpoint of the Denver secondary.
On defense, they need to do exactly what they did in the Seattle game. Plain and simple. Adrian Wilson needs to cover half the field, Robert Griffith needs to come up strong in run support, Antonio Smith, Darnell Dockett, Kendrick Clancy, and Chike Okeafor need maintain their gaps in the running game and collapse the pocket in the passing game. Gerald Hayes, Karlos Dansby, and Orlando Huff need to stay in their lanes and wait for the play to come back to them in the running game and cover their zones and punish whoever comes near them in the passing game.
Ultimately, Denver's running game has struggled in recent weeks and their primary (and pretty much only) weapon in the passing game is Javon Walker. The Cardinals need to play tough and physical with the Broncos receivers, staying primarily in vanilla zone coverages (mostly Cover 2 and Cover 1), and force Jay Cutler to concentrate, play consistent and mistake free, and test the young quarterback's mental stamina.
I have a feeling that Cutler will break down and make a mistake before the defense does. As long as coordinator Clancy Pendergast doesn't make the mistake of blitzing him too much. If you make this offense work to score, they will ultimately fail. They may gain some yards, but will not put up enough points.
I understand that this is a game that pits a 7-6 from a superior conference against a 4-9 team from an inferior conference. I understand that Denver has a reputation for being able to stop the run and that Arizona has a reputation for not being able to run at all. I understand that everyone probably penciled in a Broncos win when the schedules came out at the beginning of the season.
But, Denver's line is falling apart after the season ending injury to Matt Lepsis. Their rookie quarterback is not as experienced and does not have as many weapons at his disposal as our rookie quarterback. Arizona's receivers and their scheme match up exceptionally well against Denver's defensive backs and their scheme.
Arizona's defense (especially if they use the same schemes they used against Seattle) matches up very well against Denver's offense. If the Cardinals are able to take the running game away, make Cutler beat them, and force him to test the limits of his mental stamina by meticulously driving the ball down the field, the Cardinals will win. And win easily.
And that's just what I think will happen. May the four horsemen of the apocalypse ride shotgun on this bandwagon. The Cardinals are going to win three straight.
Cardinals 30, Broncos 17.