Rookie quarterbacks usually take a beating and make for bad bets in the NFL. Four games into his career, Sam Bradford has helped the St. Louis Rams beat the trend.
The Rams, 2-2 straight up and 3-1 against the spread, are proving to be respectable with Bradford leading the offense and coach Steve Spagnuolo rebuilding the defense.
“The Rams are for real,” The Gold Sheet handicapper Bruce Marshall said. “You could see this team in the playoffs. St. Louis is probably the team to beat in the NFC West until San Francisco shows something.”
The Detroit Lions (0-4, 3-1 ATS) represent the next hurdle for the Rams to top. The Lions are 3-point home favorites today, but Marshall is backing the underdog partly because of Bradford, the No. 1 overall pick from Oklahoma.
Bradford has passed for 944 yards and six touchdowns with six interceptions. He has wins over two veteran quarterbacks — Seattle’s Matt Hasselbeck and Washington’s Donovan McNabb — on his resume.
“Bradford is not a liability. I think in two or three years, he could be an elite quarterback in the league,” Marshall said. “The defense is the reason why the Rams are going to hang in it.
“Detroit is getting close in all these games. But you’re getting points with the better team.”
Bradford can lean on the running attack for help, as Steven Jackson has 284 yards on the ground.
The Lions seem to be a rapidly improving team, too, even as Shaun Hill fills in for their injured franchise quarterback, Matthew Stafford.
Marshall (goldsheet.com) breaks down the rest of today’s Week 5 schedule:
■ Denver at Baltimore (-7): The Broncos beefed up their defensive front, giving them more physicality to slow opposing running backs like Tennessee’s Chris Johnson last week. I don’t know how long they are going to last with Kyle Orton throwing 50 times per game and eschewing the run. But Orton, the league leader with 1,419 yards passing, can execute the short, ball-control passing game. The Ravens are off an emotional game at Pittsburgh, and I’m not sure they can extend the margin. Defense keeps Denver in this game. The Broncos are an interesting underdog worth a look.
■ Jacksonville at Buffalo (-1): The Bills wasted the better part of this decade grooming quarterbacks J.P. Losman and Trent Edwards basically for nothing, and they end up with Ryan Fitzpatrick from Harvard. They also failed to address their offensive line. Do I trust the Jaguars here? Not much. The Buffalo defense is giving up so much yardage on the ground, including 273 against the Jets, so Maurice Jones-Drew can probably be the difference in this game. Jacksonville is the lesser of two evils.
■ Kansas City at Indianapolis (-7): Peyton Manning is great, but the Colts’ defense is springing too many leaks without safety Bob Sanders. The Chiefs are better built for the long haul because their defense is better against the run, allowing just 75 yards per game. I’m still not crazy about quarterback Matt Cassel, but Kansas City can control the ball on the ground with Jamaal Charles. I like the Chiefs plus the points.
■ Atlanta (-3) at Cleveland: It looks as if Jake Delhomme might get the start at quarterback for the Browns, which could strengthen the recommendation for under the total (41). The under is still in play if Seneca Wallace starts, but it becomes a stronger play with Delhomme. Cleveland’s offense is more dangerous with Wallace. The Falcons don’t convince me yet. I’m reluctant to lay points with Atlanta on the road.
■ Tampa Bay at Cincinnati (-6½): There is something dysfunctional about this Bengals team. Carson Palmer and the offense put up big stats, but Cincinnati still lost at Cleveland last week. I don’t generally trust the Bengals laying points. They have been the worst favorite in the league at 5-18 ATS in their past 23 games. I’ll recommend the Bucs.
■ Chicago at Carolina (-2½): The Bears have to circle the wagons without quarterback Jay Cutler. Will they be inept without him? It’s Todd Collins and Caleb Hanie, but Chicago can do it. I like the fact that defensive end Julius Peppers is coming back to play his former team. The Panthers’ offense is struggling, and rookie Jimmy Clausen can’t do what Bradford is doing for St. Louis. Top receiver Steve Smith is out. It should be a low-scoring game, and I would go with the Bears.
■ Green Bay (-2½) at Washington: The failure to find a running back to take Ryan Grant’s place is hurting the Packers. That could keep Green Bay out of the playoffs. The Packers also have problems in their secondary. I don’t know what to make of the Redskins. The defense is solid enough, and McNabb has brought leadership. The home ‘dog might be worth a look.
■ N.Y. Giants at Houston (-3): With Arian Foster’s running and wideout Andre Johnson and quarterback Matt Schaub, the Texans have a balanced offense. I’m not sold on the Giants. Eli Manning can be good, and he can be bad. We’re strong on Houston in The Gold Sheet.
■ New Orleans (-6½) at Arizona: Some United Football League teams have better quarterback situations than the Cardinals. The question is, what will the Saints show here? They are banged up and not covering numbers (0-3-1 ATS). Drew Brees is not making as many big plays. I lean to the Cardinals, but it’s a light vote.
■ San Diego (-6) at Oakland: I like this over 45, and this is probably my favorite total. The Raiders are 14-7 “over” in their past 21 games. San Diego is starting to put things together. Mike Tolbert is another running threat, and quarterback Philip Rivers is in the groove. You can make a case for the Chargers.
■ Tennessee at Dallas (-7): Titans quarterback Vince Young is hard to figure out. Can you count on the guy week in and week out? Defenses are trying to slow down running back Chris Johnson as much as possible and make Young beat them. I still have questions about the Dallas offensive line. Tennessee is a live ‘dog even though it’s not a reliable team.
■ Philadelphia at San Francisco (-3): The 49ers (0-4) are not out of the NFC West race yet. They have been playing on some hard luck and should have two wins. Coach Mike Singletary is on edge. His future could be on the line the next few weeks. Maybe they will start playing to quarterback Alex Smith’s strengths more. Michael Vick is not there, and Kevin Kolb has not been convincing at quarterback, so the Eagles could be in trouble. You should see a kamikaze effort from the 49ers, and I’ll give them one more shot.
Compiled by Review-Journal sports writer Matt Youmans.