Ram-Raider Tilt May Be Just a Game : Even the Dickerson-Allen Duel Looks Like It's Off

Times Staff Writer

Year by year, the Raiders' roots have weaved their tangled way deeper into the soil of Southern California's sports consciousness.

Once they were regarded by many as claim jumpers, although they argued that the Rams had abandoned the claim. The Rams, clinging to the metropolitan identity, tried to point out that they had only shifted operations from the inner city to the suburbs.

But by tonight's 6 o'clock kickoff at Anaheim, after a week of contrived hype by a shameless media, the lines of rivalry have been established: separate counties, separate constituencies, separate philosophies.

It's certainly different from the last time these teams met in 1982, when the Rams merely motored up the freeway to the Coliseum while the Raiders, the home team, flew in from Oakland, and it raises an interesting point.

If tonight's game between division champions is a possible Super Bowl preview, and the Rams were to win the Super Bowl, where would they hold their parade?

Ram Coach John Robinson has time to think about that. Of more immediate concern is how he'll approach tonight's contest with nothing of substance at stake for his side. With Dallas' loss at San Francisco Sunday, the Rams (11-4) are assured of playing the NFC East champion Cowboys at home on Jan. 4 or 5--and, if they're lucky, being in Chicago a week later for the NFC title game.

The important thing is not to get anyone hurt tonight.

"I certainly won't play anybody that's shaky in terms of injuries," Robinson said, "but everybody that's healthy is going to play. Maybe it'll be a very loose, wide-open game."

Over the weekend, the list of healthy Rams did not include Eric Dickerson, who was unable to practice because of a tight right hamstring. His participation will be determined in pregame warmups, but Robinson indicated after Dallas' defeat late Sunday that he wouldn't take a chance.

"If he pulls it, he's finished for the season," Robinson said.

Dickerson's counterpart, Marcus Allen, is ready for his side of the matchup. He may win the duel by default but will be chasing a pair of idle rivals.

Allen, with 1,636 yards, trails Atlanta's Gerald Riggs by 83 in his bid to succeed to the NFL rushing title that Dickerson won the last two years. He also is in position to equal Walter Payton's record of nine successive 100-yard games set earlier this season.

But a victory is more important to the Raiders (11-4), whose road to Super Bowl XX at New Orleans must lead through Miami if they don't win tonight--and the Dolphins seldom lose at home.

Howie Long, the Raiders' All-Pro defensive end, said: "I like playing in Miami this time of year."

But first the Raiders would have to dispose of next week's AFC wild-card game survivor (the Jets or Patriots) in a divisional playoff at the Coliseum. With that in mind, they'll keep their other defensive end, Sean Jones, out of tonight's action to allow his dislocated right elbow two more weeks to heal.

Coach Tom Flores said: "This is just another game--a game against an excellent football team with something at stake. I'm not going to approach it as just a tuneup game. We're going to play to win."

What it all comes down to, then, is that the game will be played at a level of intensity somewhere between Armageddon and an exhibition.

Robinson said: "Both teams had periods of struggle during the season, and both teams have come back very well. It's going to be fun playing the game."

There has been limited pre-game bombardment by the players--mostly from El Segundo--but they can be expected to play hard and well tonight for no other reason than it's Monday night.

The Raiders are 23-3-1 on Monday nights, while the Rams have won four of five under Robinson, including two of their best performances this season at Seattle and San Francisco when they were heavy underdogs.

"The Monday night thing will add to it," Robinson said, "and the fact we're both champions will add to it."

Flores said: "We have a tough challenge. We're playing the best special teams in the NFL, and by a pretty good margin. Every time you look up one of their guys is running something back. And we pride ourselves on our special teams."

Kicking time is no time to go for a beer. The two sides rank one-two in the NFL in overall special-team performance. The Rams have the individual leaders in net punting (rookie Dale Hatcher, 38.0), punt returns (Henry Ellard, 13.8) and kickoff returns (Ron Brown, 34.2, 3 touchdowns).

The Raiders have improved after some early breakdowns. Fulton Walker, with 628 yards, is 38 away from the league record for punt-return yardage set by another Raider, Greg Pruitt, in 1983.

The defenses also are similar. The Rams rank fifth in the NFL, the Raiders seventh, and both are stronger against the run than the pass.

The Rams' turnover ratio is significantly better--plus 10 to minus 7 for the Raiders.

It's on offense where both teams have taken their lumps, verbally and physically. Perhaps no two quarterbacks absorbed more abuse en route to championships than the Raiders' Marc Wilson and the Rams' Dieter Brock.

Wilson has been the Raiders' starter since the 49ers' Jeff Stover spiked Jim Plunkett on his left shoulder in the third game of the season. With 20 interceptions and 15 touchdowns, he ranks 24th among NFL passers with a rating of 61.3 but has two important supporters: Flores and Al Davis.

"I've defended him because I've been there and you guys haven't," Flores told reporters this week.

Davis suggested that the media was making too much of the importance of the position.

"The only time in recent years when the quarterback was a dominant factor was the Steelers with Terry Bradshaw in the 70s," Davis said.

Plunkett probably will be activated before the playoffs, but whether he plays could depend partly on Wilson's showing tonight.

Brock ranks seventh in the NFL (83.2) and has 16 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. His only interception in the last four games wasn't his fault, and an oddity is that Robinson, his steadfast defender, only recently seems to be trusting him with the offense.

These teams are two of only four, with Miami and San Francisco, that have reached the playoffs the last three years. The Rams are 3-0 against the AFC West this season, the Raiders 2-1 against the NFC West.

The Raiders lead the series, 3-1. In the four games over the last 14 years, the Rams' only win was at the Coliseum in 1977.

In the NFL's interconference schedule rotation, they won't meet again until 1988.

Raider linebacker Rod Martin implied that the two clubs don't have much in common, anyway.

"We're the L.A. Raiders," he said this week, "and they're the Anaheim Rams."

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