On the morning of their biggest race ever, a we-know-where-you-live challenge rematch they have begged for since December, the Rams find themselves on cinder blocks with their hoods up. Just give us five more minutes, fellas.
Well, time's up. You wanted them, you stalked them, you provoked them. Here they are, the San Francisco 49ers, the smoothest-running machine on 22 wheels. Wipe off the grease and get your tailpipes to Candlestick Park for today's NFC Championship game.
In a perfect world, the Rams have the game moved to March 22. As it is, maybe the most proficient and opportunistic quarterback of his generation, Joe Montana, gets to throw darts at a cut-and-paste secondary board held together mostly by defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur's wits. Last week, the Rams jerked a 33-year-old ex-Ram and current real estate man, Johnnie Johnson, out of an open-house presentation and squeezed his head back into a helmet. What else needs to be said?
Clifford Hicks and Anthony Newman, two up-and-comers in the secondary, are on the sideline now, the victims of season-ending injuries.
Remember, both played in the Dec. 11 game at Anaheim Stadium in which the Rams held receiver John Taylor to scoring receptions of 92 and 95 yards, while limiting Montana to 458 yards passing, a career best.
"And this team is better than they were four weeks ago," Shurmur said of the 49ers.
As he speaks, the Rams change ice packs and check the swelling on starting free safety Vincent Newsome's tender left ankle. If he can't go, it's second-year man James Washington and duck for cover.
You might have seen what the 49ers did to a good defense last week--no, a great defense. They cut through the Vikings like a meat cleaver through Minnesota cream cheese.
The Vikings' front four, as menacing a group as has ever been, harmed nary a whisker on Montana's dimpled chin.
Oddsmakers took a look at the game film and the Rams' travel itinerary and made San Francisco a seven-point favorite, ignoring minor details, such as the teams splitting two regular-season games by a total of four points.
And this is a fine time for a man's secondary to hobble out on him.
"If you could pick and choose, you'd probably pick another week," Shurmur said.
He's made similar apologies this season and still managed a front-row ticket for today's NFC title game.
There's something about this year's Rams that defies explanation--especially on defense, where they ranked 21st in the regular season and were stretched every way except out of the playoffs.
Shurmur's Murmurs--his defense makes your heart jump--have given up only 20 points in two chess-piece playoff performances, effectively shutting down a Philadelphia Eagle team that couldn't run and a New York Giant team that couldn't pass.
With the 49ers, of course, you get the dreaded two-headed offensive monster, a team with no visible weaknesses. It's the next-worst thing to facing the Rams' offense in practice.
So why is Shurmur smiling? Because he thinks the Rams can win.
"I would not bet against this group of guys this week," Shurmur said. "Although we haven't been there statistically, there's a resilience with these guys. They've kept playing. You know what I mean? When teams moved the ball down the field, they kept playing. The tougher the situation, the better they have responded. This is the ultimate challenge for our guys, no question. But I don't think any of us would go if we didn't think we had a chance."
You'd have risked your stomach lining playing prognosticator for the Rams in 1989.
"We've had the odds stacked against us, the weather stacked against us and the fans stacked against us," quarterback Jim Everett said last week. "This is nothing new."
Last week, the Rams completed an odyssey to become the first NFL team in memory to win three consecutive road games after cross-country flights to the East Coast. The Rams are 7-3 on the road and are probably better off in Candlestick Park, where they've handled the 49ers the last two times out.
As a starter, Joe Montana is 8-0 at Anaheim Stadium. Where would you rather play him?
Believe it or not, some Rams say they're going to miss the romance of airport gift shops and the misty-eyed ceremonies of resetting wristwatches.
"This is an hour flight," receiver Flipper Anderson said of the plane ride from Los Angeles to San Francisco. "That's nothing. I kind of enjoyed the flights, and traveling with the fellas."
It's a little easier when your game's in the clouds, too, as Anderson's game has been.
This series seems to date to the Gold Rush. The teams have met 80 times since 1950--the Rams lead the series, 47-31-2--but never in the playoffs. And never when the story lines have been so intriguing. The teams split regular-season meetings, the Rams winning, 13-12, at Candlestick Park Oct. 1, and the 49ers winning, 30-27, at Anaheim Stadium Dec. 11.
The 49ers had the first game in hand until sure-handed fullback Tom Rathman fumbled at the Ram 19 with 2:59 left. From there, Everett drove the Rams to the game-winning field goal with two seconds left. Everett has called the comeback the turning point in his career.
In the second game, the Rams blew two 17-point leads and eventually the game, igniting the cries for a rematch.
"We felt somewhere down the line we'd end up seeing them again," Montana said. "We won one we shouldn't have won, and they won one they shouldn't have won. So, it kind of evens out and we start all over. It's hard to say what kind of a game we'll get."
Who knows what will happen if it rains, but with the Ram defense suffering, their best chance seems to be a shootout similar to the Dec. 11 meeting.
That's what Montana is expecting, at least. "Our main objective is to keep the ball away from the Rams' offense for as long a period as we can," he said.
Ram Coach John Robinson tends to agree with Montana.
"Both teams are at their best when they've got the engines going flat-out on offense," he said.
Coach George Seifert's team dismantled the Vikings last weekend, 41-13, in a most dominating and machine-like manner.
"They beat Minnesota so easily it was embarrassing," Robinson said.
The 49ers have never looked better, others have said. The open-field running talents of their two receivers, Jerry Rice and, more recently, Taylor, give the 49ers a devastating new wrinkle.
"Seldom do you see a receiver take a four-yard pass and run 80 yards," Robinson said. "I don't know if I've seen a combination quite that effective."
Remember, Robinson sends Ellard and Anderson to the huddle each week.
Injured Ram cornerback Clifford Hicks has been wearing an embroidered baseball cap billing today's game as "World War III." . . . Receiver Henry Ellard said he doesn't think rain will affect the Rams' offense dramatically. "You have to deal with it," he said. "Candlestick is not known as a real good field as it is."
Asked what gift he might want from 49er quarterback Joe Montana, Jim Everett said, "His experience but not his age." Everett just turned 27; Montana will be 34 in June. . . Montana said it's ridiculous to think the Rams are more motivated to win because the 49ers have won three Super Bowl titles. "Not to get there is probably more demoralizing to us than them," Montana said. "You don't know what you've got till you've got it. And they haven't had it.
RAMS OPP. 49ERS OPP. RUSHING 472 404 Number 493 373 1,909 1,543 Yards 1,966 1,383 4.0 3.8 Average 4.0 3.7 47 40 Long Gain 29 23 19 13 Touchdowns 14 9 PASSING 523 577 Attempts 483 564 308 345 Completions 339 316 4,369 4,302 Yards 4,584 3,568 58.9 59.8 Completion Pct. 70.2 56.0 29 24 Touchdowns 35 15 18 21 Intercept 11 21 78 95 Long Gain 95 65 32 42 Sacks 45 43 90.1 81.7 Rating 114.8 68.5 RECEIVING 308 345 Number 339 316 4,369 4,302 Yardage 4,584 3,568 14.2 12.5 Average 13.5 11.3 78 95 Long Gain 95 65 29 24 Touchdowns 35 15 INTERCEPTIONS 21 18 Number 21 11 372 207 Yards 262 140 17.7 11.5 Average 12.5 12.7 81 42 Long Return 42 35 3 0 Touchdowns 0 0 PUNT RETURNS 35 34 Number 39 35 24 20 Fair Catch 20 4 332 315 Yardage 429 361 9.5 9.3 Average 11.0 10.3 25 68 Long 37 22 0 1 Touchdowns 0 0 KICKOFF RETURNS 67 84 Number 51 76 1,328 1,633 Yards 954 1,435 19.8 19.4 Average 18.7 18.9 74 47 Long 60 37 0 0 Touchdowns 0 0
SCORE BY QUARTERS 1 2 3 4 OT TOT. Rams 122 124 61 116 3--426 Opponents 50 87 83 122 2--344
SCORE BY QUARTERS 1 2 3 4 OT TOT. 49ers 67 137 64 174 0--442 Opponents 59 77 53 64 0--253