Apparently, there wasn’t room in town for two miracle finishes on one weekend, though the Rams certainly could have used one Sunday.
Instead, they wilted in the fourth-quarter sun, leaving the scene of their battle against the San Francisco 49ers with tongues hanging and tails dragging.
The 49ers turned up the heat all right, tying a National Football League record with their 11th consecutive road victory, a 24-21 decision at Anaheim Stadium. With the field temperature rising to 100 degrees and linebackers dropping like flies, the Rams were left gasping for air and grasping for Roger Craig, who carried defenders to a career-high 190 yards in 22 carries, including 3 for touchdowns.
It was all the Rams could do afterward to lift their heads and pay homage to the 49er running back.
“I’ve played 6 years against him,” safety Johnnie Johnson offered. “And he’s an excellent back. But today, he played like he was possessed.”
The Rams will long remember the frustration, even more the prostration.
When the Rams lost linebacker Mike Wilcher late in the first half with a concussion that later he could not remember receiving, it left the defense with tanks empty. Already down one starter, Mel Owens, the Rams were forced to toss rookie free agent Brett Faryniarz into the fire.
The 49ers, quickly spotting the linebacker with the strange name, redirected their offense away from mad-sacker Kevin Greene.
“They ran the ball 3 times to my side,” Greene said. “They were all perimeter runs. We were never able to get the pressure on Joe (Montana).”
Faryniarz fought and kicked the best he could, but the strain left the defense listless.
Linebacker Mark Jerue and defensive end Shawn Miller were forced from the game in the fourth quarter, suffering from dehydration. Afterward, Miller needed an intravenous infusion to revive him.
Veteran Carl Ekern, who finished with 12 tackles and 4 assists, spent precious fourth-quarter respites hunched over at the hips, heaving and gasping.
“They had to play in it,” Ekern said of the heat, offering no excuses. “It was a long, hot afternoon. But we played in it and they played in it.”
After trailing, 17-7, at halftime, the Rams made a game of it, taking a 21-17 lead with 17 seconds left in the third quarter on an 8-yard scoring pass from quarterback Jim Everett to Buford McGee.
Despite the prodigious running of Craig, who had 131 yards in the first half alone, including a 46-yard touchdown run on which he broke 5 tackles, the Rams could still be found lurking early in the fourth quarter.
It was a question of how long the oxygen would last.
After McGee’s touchdown, the Rams had their best chance to take control, having pinned Montana and the 49ers into a third-and-19 situation at their 9-yard line.
Montana turned it around quickly, though, floating a pass downfield for receiver Terry Greer, who made the catch despite absorbing a vicious tackle by Johnson. Somehow, Greer held onto the ball for a 31-yard gain and a first down.
“That was the biggest play of the game,” Johnson said. “If we (stop) that play, they kick to us from their own end zone.”
Johnson was shocked that Greer made the catch. “It was as hard as I could hit him,” Johnson said. “There was no way you can hold onto that ball. Maybe the hit pinned the ball in his chest.”
Greer’s catch knocked any wind that was left out of the Rams.
“It was an all-go,” Montana said of the play. “And it was a great catch.”
From his own 40, Montana moved his team steadily upfield, handing off once to Craig for 11 yards and to someone named Harry Sydney for 13 more yards.
From the Ram 16, the 49ers capped their 93-yard drive by doing the right thing on this day, which meant giving the ball to Craig, who rolled through the Ram secondary for the winning touchdown with 12:21 remaining.
“He had a highlight day against us,” Ram cornerback LeRoy Irvin said.
The Rams’ last hope for pulling the game out left them with 6:24 remaining when 49er safety Ronnie Lott intercepted his second Everett pass at the Ram 45.
By then, the Rams were running on fumes.
“We felt the need for volunteers at the end,” Coach John Robinson said.
With that in mind, it would have served the Rams better had they taken advantage of the game’s beginning, when they let opportunities pass by.
They had a big break early when Robert Delpino forced and recovered a fumbled punt at the 49er 26.
But the Rams gave the ball right back when Greg Bell, who gained just 28 yards in 13 carries, fumbled at the 14.
Bell struggled throughout and said he was bothered by a shoulder injury suffered in last week’s 33-0 victory over Atlanta.
“The shoulder bothered me a lot,” Bell said. “I just couldn’t take the pounding. I fell on it a couple times early, and it was like it pumped soreness into the shoulder.”
It was an erratic day all around for the Rams, who gained just 42 yards rushing but surrendered 429 total yards to Montana and the 49ers.
Everett completed 20 of 33 passes for 199 yards, but his 2 interceptions, both by Lott, killed potential rallies.
Yes, there were moments. Everett’s 44-yard scoring pass to Aaron Cox in the second quarter was perfectly executed, Cox beating Tim McKyer to the right corner of the end zone.
Everett also had a 18-yard scoring pass to Henry Ellard in the third quarter to cut the lead to 17-14.
In the end, it amounted to another loss to the 49ers. That’s four straight, and 11 out of 15.
The 49ers knocked the Rams out of first place and left them breathless.
“To me, it’s a case of us not being ready to play at quite this level yet,” Robinson said. “I told the football team that. “We have 9 weeks, if we keep getting better and improving, we have a chance to be there in the end.”
The end, of course, is a Dec. 18 rematch against the 49ers in Candlestick Park. The Rams have 9 weeks to catch their breath.
With the loss, New Orleans takes the lead in the NFC West with a 6-1 record. The Rams and 49ers drop into a second-place tie at 5-2. The Rams were hit hard by injuries. Safety Vince Newsome (neck) and linebacker Larry Kelm (lower back) are listed as questionable for next week’s game against Seattle at Anaheim Stadium. . . . Mike Wilcher suffered a concussion near the end of the first half and did not return. “I was responding slowly to questions,” Wilcher said afterward. Wilcher didn’t remember how he was injured, but traced the injury to a knot on the back of his head. . . . Cornerback Mickey Sutton (ankle), tackle Gary Jeter (knee) are probable for next week.
Steve Young replaced Joe Montana in back-to-back series in the third quarter. Coach Bill Walsh said Montana was bothered by the heat and a rib injury suffered last week. “We wanted to give him a little rest,” Walsh said. “I cannot say if it really worked or not because the Rams started playing really well.” . . . Montana completed 21 of 31 passes for 203 yards. He threw no touchdowns and had an interception. . . . Jerry Rice was slowed by a first-half ankle sprain and finished with 4 catches for 65 yards. . . . The Rams finished with 2 sacks, giving them 38 for the season, tying their sack total for the 1987 season. . . . Mostly, the Rams didn’t get to Montana fast enough. “He did like (Neil) Lomax did,” linebacker Kevin Greene said. “They step 5 steps and throw quickly. Everything is in rhythm. We have to get better, get an offensive attack like that.”