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Ram Hope Ends on the 9-Yard Line : Pro football: With time expired, they are given a second chance to beat the Saints. They don’t, losing 24-20, to fall to 5-8.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the brink of arm-wrestling their way back into playoff relevence Sunday, the Rams found themselves once again one play short and tumbling back into their season-long 1990 nightmare.

And like all recurring bad dreams, the Rams’ 24-20 loss to the New Orleans Saints was full of just-missed opportunities, mini-victories that evaporated and a slew grandiose, frozen-in-time failures before an Anaheim Stadium crowd of 56,864.

Funny how one tricky three-hour game can have so many parts, but these tragedy-in-the-making Rams probably couldn’t have done it any other way. Why have a nightmare if it can’t be shared by millions?

This was a loss that finally and irreversibly knocks the Rams (5-8) out of any logical playoff scenario, no matter what those calculator-cranking mathematicians may say.

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This was a loss that shouldn’t have been, a loss that was handed away when the Rams (who had 24 first downs to the Saints’ nine) seemed to be at last capturing their nerve and ability to win close games.

This was a loss that had tailback Cleveland Gary talking plainly about the unlikely possibility of being waived after his two lost fumbles gave New Orleans renewed life, and left quarterback Jim Everett dead-eyed and unable to come up with explanations.

“I know this loss kills us,” Everett said.

It was a loss that is probably best recalled in slow motion, because that’s how the pivotal moments of the Rams’ undoing seemed to unravel--especially the last 33 seconds of the game, which played out like 33 minutes.

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Thirty-three seconds full of sound, fury and mass confusion, signifying the end of the Ram season. Perfect.

“We had our chance,” Everett said, “and we just couldn’t make the plays.”

After a combination of blown defensive assignments and a key Gary fumble--his 11th of the season and fifth in four games--had allowed the Saints to erase a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit and pull ahead, 24-20, the Rams still had a chance to pull it out.

Behind Everett, they got all the way to the Saint six-yard line, needing a touchdown with those 33 seconds left in the game to do it and, due to some offensive confusion, zero timeouts. The Rams could have had close to 40 seconds if they hadn’t delayed so long calling their last timeout. Everett said he was waiting for a signal from the bench.

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On second and goal from the six, Everett was sacked by linebacker Pat Swilling for a 10-yard loss. On the next play, with 21 seconds to play, Everett, under a big rush, hit Pete Holohan for three meaningless yards to the 13, where the Rams got the worst of both worlds: the clock would have stopped on an incomplete pass or if Holohan could’ve gotten out of bounds, but neither happened.

“We wanted to get in there, but (there were) a lot of their guys in the end zone, too,” Rams Coach John Robinson said, explaining why the Rams never took a shot at the end zone. “Just couldn’t find anybody, and were forced to come off (to short-yardage opportunities). Obviously, the rush was a problem for us coming around. . . . The rush was coming around, and he was trying to find somebody. I just think he just couldn’t see anybody in the end zone that had a chance.”

Fourth down, and the clock churned on down to 10 . . . eight. . . five . . . one. . . . The Rams were in a frenzy to line up for their last shot, the Saints chaotically trying to set up for the last stand. And, somewhat remarkably, Everett got the snap off just in time, dropped the ball and watched Saint linebacker Vaughan Johnson recover it.

But wait--linebacker Rickey Jackson, in the melee, was offsides, and the Rams had one more chance from the nine (the penalty, for some reason, was of four yards), because the game cannot end on a defensive penalty.

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“Sure there was confusion, but they were just as confused on defense as we were,” Everett said.

One last chance to jump into the wild-card race, because both Green Bay and the Vikings had already lost, meaning the Rams could have been tied for the last spot with a victory.

Instead, a slow-motion nightmare: Everett dropped back, saw nothing, then saw Jackson bearing in and wobbled an off-balance, no-chance pass five feet short of Buford McGee to end the game.

There were no offsides calls this time, no penalties at all. Just the end.

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“Our errors cost us the game,” Robinson said. “I felt we would score down there, especially when we got the second chance.”

That drive was just symptomatic of a game the Rams basically dominated, except for a handful of plays. Their defense stopped the Saints consistently--until running back Gill Fenerty ripped off a 60-yard touchdown past safety Vince Newsome to get the Saints to within 20-17 in the fourth quarter.

“This was a crushing blow,” Newsome said. “Without a doubt, we played great defense as a team today. But the plays we did break down on hurt us, hurt us bad. I missed the tackle, and that seemed to turn the game around.”

The Ram offense controlled things--until the collection of Gary’s fumbles, a disastrous third-quarter Everett interception that resulted in a 50-yard touchdown return by Brett Maxie and the final failure spun the game out of control.

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New Orleans’ offense, mostly, was the Rams’ talent for crucial mistakes, highlighted by Gary, who had a quiet talk with Robinson at his locker after the game.

Gary’s first fumble was indisputable and very costly: As he was trying to crash in for a touchdown, Gary lost the ball at the one-yard line when inside linebacker Sam Mills hit him low. The ball rolled into the end zone, where safety Gene Atkins recovered it.

But Robinson kept Gary in there, all the way into fourth quarter, until the second play after Fenerty had closed it to 20-17. Gary ran off left tackle, scrambled through a hole, then seemed to hit the ground before the ball squeezed loose. The officials, who at first ruled nothing, decided it was a fumble that the Saints had recovered, and the replay official could find no angle that proved otherwise.

The second fumble gave the Saints the ball at the Ram 42, and soon enough quarterback Steve Walsh had put New Orleans ahead to stay by hitting receiver Eric Martin from four yards out.

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“There’s no question in my mind that if I don’t fumble, we win the game,” Gary said. “This is definitely the worst I’ve ever experienced. Fumbling’s a no-no, that’s the bottom line.

“I’m willing to accept my future, whatever it is. I don’t know if the Rams are going to cut me tomorrow or what, but I’ll face it. The point is, I’m fumbling. I’m trying my best, but I’m fumbling, and obviously, it’s hurting this team.”

Robinson defended Gary after the game, argued that the second fumble wasn’t a fumble, and there is little chance Gary isn’t a key member of this team for the duration.

But for now, Gary admits that he is no help.

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“It doesn’t matter if you’re leading the league in touchdowns (which he was), all people point to is the negatives,” Gary said. “And unfortunately, I’m leading the league in fumbles. Being aggressive is what has gotten me to this level, and this season, it’s also gotten me into a lot of trouble.”

Ram Notes

Running back Marcus Dupree was the only Ram on the injury report, suffering a broken nose in the first quarter, but he returned to action.

* COMMENTARY: Much of the Rams’ hopes this season have fallen from the hands of running back Cleveland Gary. Mike Penner’s story, C16.

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* THE LONG RUN: It took Gill Fenerty 10 seconds to run the Saints back into the game--but it took him nearly four years to get the opportunity. John Weyler’s story, C16.


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