COMMENTARY : Lansford Keeps His Upper Lip Stiff, Even When It's Newly Bare

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before the close shave Sunday night, there was a closer shave in the hotel room of Mike Lansford. With a few flicks of a razor blade, the mustache that had drooped behind Lansford's Ram face mask since 1982 was gone.

Just like the New Orleans Saints a few hours later.

"I did a commercial, a public service announcement," Lansford said, "and I got to looking at my face in the mirror. 'Y'know, that mustache is getting ratty. It's time to clean it up.' "

Lansford rubbed his right finger across his clean upper lip, renewing old acquaintances.

"But now, I'm really upset. If I knew I would've been in the position to win the game on national TV, I'd have kept it on for another day or two."

Lansford grinned. He and the rest of us all know better than that.

If it's the Superdome, and it's late in the game, Lansford figures to be involved. Watching him loosen up on the sidelines becomes as much a part of the two-minute drill as watching the clock.

Here in 1983, Lansford kicked the game-winner that sent the Rams into the playoffs.

Here in 1988, Lansford kicked four field goals that gave the Rams a 12-10 victory.

And here Sunday evening, Lansford kicked the 31-yarder in overtime that climaxed the Ram comeback of the year--decade?--in a wild, 20-17 run for the wild card.

Only this time, Lansford got his kick with a twist.

This time, for the first time since his sophomore year in high school, Lansford kicked to redeem himself.

Before Sunday, Lansford hadn't missed a potential game-winning field goal in the final minute since he was a nervous 10th-grader at Arcadia High. Get him inside the 50 with time running out and Lansford was a surer thing than the final gun.

Finally, however, Lansford met his mettle match. With four seconds left in regulation, Lansford was asked to deliver the Rams from a 17-17 tie from 52 yards away.

Lansford hooked wide left.

"I came through a little too quick," Lansford said. "Indoors, I can easily make that kick. I didn't miss it by much; it just tailed off at the end.

"Thank God for overtime--and for our offense deciding to play with four minutes left."

As concise as he is precise, Lansford summarized, in 25 words or less, the essence of this implausible, inexplicable Ram effort before 64,274 sore throats.

Down, 17-3, with 2:50 to play, the Rams had Pete Holohan teeing the ball up on the 42 for Lansford and the victory with 0:04 to play.

That the victory had to be delayed four more minutes didn't matter much to Lansford.

"I think this showed we're capable of winning this type of game," he said. "We have the character to go along with the talent . . .

"This is the kind of game we haven't been winning."

Buffalo in mid-October.

Minnesota in early November.

"Actually, it goes back to the 17th century, I believe," Lansford deadpanned.

For more than 56 minutes Sunday, this had the look of another type of Ram defeat--the patent-approved Sleepwalk Through the Superdome. The Rams had lost two of their previous three games here and hadn't scored a touchdown on New Orleans soil since 1984, discounting the one the strike replacements managed in a 37-10 Ram loss in 1987.

They were still looking for that touchdown before Buford McGee broke the ice and the Saint defensive front for a five-yard scoring run. That made the score 17-10. The scoreboard clock showed 2:48 remaining.

Three New Orleans downs and a punt followed. So did three passes from Jim Everett to Flipper Anderson for gains of 26, 14 and 15 yards.

The last completion, coming with 1:02 left, was in the end zone. Four years without a real Ram touchdown and now two in two minutes.

The game was tied. Next up: Lansford. He knew his time was coming.

"These are the kind of games you get here," Lansford said. "It's always a defensive struggle and you know it's going to come down to the kickers. That's my job. That's what I do."

And how did Lansford respond to his streak-breaking miss in regulation?

"I wasn't real happy, but I wasn't real down, either," he said. "If we had been down by one, I'd have had to live with it. That's the life of a kicker. You wait and watch and hope.

"But I knew this was going overtime and either Morton (Andersen) or me was going to decide it.

"Fortunately, it was me."

Lansford got his second chance, from 31 yards out, and the Rams got second life in the NFC wild-card race. Staring at a 7-5 record and a four-team jam with New Orleans, Minnesota and Green Bay, the Rams' Houdini move now leaves them 8-4 and abreast with wild-card frontrunner Philadelphia.

As other Rams danced around him, Lansford kept a stiff upper lip as well as his perspective. A heart-stopper and a game-winner in New Orleans? To Lansford, it's all just a punch of the clock and a split of the uprights.

Close shaves, after all, are his business.

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