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Beating 49ers Helps Solve Rams’ Puzzle

I never made it to a quantum physics class, studied the Talmud or worked on a Chevy transmission, but I have tried to unravel this playoff possibility mess. Believe me, you want a slide rule, a rabbi or a crescent wrench before you want to take a peek at Page 13 of the Official 1988 National Football League Record & Fact Book.

I counted 40 tie-breaking procedures for postseason play. Forty. I’m not sure, but I think the Strategic Air Command uses fewer procedures to launch a nuclear warhead.

The NFL takes its postseason seriously. It wants you to take it seriously, too, which is why a roomful of geeks spent considerable time making the playoff formula more complicated than the helical configuration of a DNA structure. But for Ram followers, it boils down to this:

If the New Orleans Saints lose to the Atlanta Falcons and the Rams beat the San Francisco 49ers, the Rams win the NFC West championship. If the Dallas Cowboys beat the Philadelphia Eagles or the New York Jets beat the New York Giants and the Rams beat the 49ers, the Rams earn a wild-card spot, but only if the Lakers beat the Celtics and Jupiter’s second moon is aligned with Mars. Something like that.

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My favorite if in all of this is the one involving the 49ers. You can hypothesize yourself into a frenzy, but it doesn’t mean a thing if the Rams don’t leave Candlestick Park with a victory Sunday evening.

The Rams shouldn’t beat the 49ers, but they will. If nothing else, it’s time.

The Rams have lost the past four games to the 49ers. They’ve lost 8 of the past 10, 11 of the past 15. It’s not a rivalry anymore for the 49ers; it’s a rest stop.

The 49ers have beaten the Rams like a percussion section lately. They’ve beaten them big (48-0 in last year’s final game) and they’ve beaten them small (24-21 in this year’s first meeting). If ever a team held a spell over the Rams, it’s the 49ers, who have spent almost the entire decade making life miserable for Coach John Robinson and the fellas.

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Not this time. This time the Rams do what they haven’t done since Sept. 14, 1986--they beat the 49ers.

It won’t be easy. The 49ers have quarterback Joe Montana and running back Roger Craig and wide receiver Jerry Rice. After Sunday’s games, the 49ers’ offense was ranked second in the league, their defense ranked fourth. And still, the Rams, the same team that lost to the lowly San Diego Chargers, will win.

Strange team, these Rams. They’re like mood rings, always changing colors and personalities. After nine games this season, you would have thought the playoffs were a lock. Now the Rams are buying rosaries wholesale.

But one thing has remained constant through it all: They play well when it matters most. They don’t always win, but at least they give a good account of themselves.

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The Rams beat the Raiders, 22-17, at the Coliseum. Big game.

They beat the Giants, 45-31, at Giants Stadium. Big game.

They beat the Seattle Seahawks, 31-10. Semi-big game.

They beat the Saints, 12-10, at the Superdome. Huge game.

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They later lost to the Eagles and Saints, but not by much.

They beat the Chicago Bears, 23-3. Big game.

“We have not choked or something when people said, ‘Hey, this is a big game,’ ” Robinson said.

Actually, it’s the little ones that the Rams have gagged on. A victory over the 49ers will make things better. A victory over the 49ers serves as the Rams’ Heimlich maneuver.

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The Rams could have (should have?) beaten the 49ers in October. They were ahead, 21-17, with less than a quarter to play. They stuck Montana with a third and 19 at the 49er 9. If the Rams hold, they probably get the ball at midfield or better.

They don’t. Montana completes a 31-yard pass to little-used Terry Greer, the only pass Greer caught all day. The 49ers go on to take the lead and the game.

Those were the old Rams. The new Rams, at least the ones who showed up for December’s schedule, knock those passes down. They also don’t allow Craig to rush for 190 yards and 3 touchdowns, as he did the first time around. They also don’t render Rice generally useless, as they did the first time, and lose.

The new Rams have shut down two run-oriented teams--the Bears and the Falcons--in a row. Cornerbacks LeRoy Irvin and Jerry Gray are lobbying hard for trips to the Pro Bowl, which means they have a lot of nerve or a lot of confidence. And even though the ballots already have been distributed, what better way to make a point than confound Montana and Rice?

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This will be a different game. I think Greg Bell is going to gain more than 28 yards this time. I think Jim Everett will pass for more than 200 yards. I think the Rams won’t fumble four times or throw two interceptions.

The best team usually wins this sort of game. This time it will go to the most desperate.


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