The San Francisco 49ers, Big Nickel-ed and dimed to death by the Rams only three weeks ago, performed a little math lesson for their inferiors Monday night in front of a national audience that is used to these 49er teacher-student sessions.
One superstar quarterback plus one superstar wide receiver plus one darting young running back plus a surging defense equals a Super Bowl contender, just about any season you want.
Even subtracting 49er all-pro safety Ronnie Lott, all that added up to a 26-10 defeat for the Rams (5-9) and the mathematical end to any of their far-fetched playoff hopes.
The team that came into the preseason called "the Second-Best Team in Football" probably won't even be the second-best team that doesn't make the playoffs this season, while the best team in football keeps on besting everybody. And the Rams will second that proclamation.
"They just show you what championship-level is," Ram Coach John Robinson said of the 49ers. "They cover for an injured player very well."
The Rams, after stopping the 49ers at Candlestick Park with an imaginative four-safety "Big Nickel" defensive scheme, were just another bump on the road Monday night. And the 49ers do love the road--this victory made it 17 in a row on the road and nine of their last 10 in Anaheim Stadium.
You can confuse the 13-1 49ers once, spoil their shot at a perfect season with defensive tricks and gadgets and big plays, but Joe Montana and Jerry Rice and all the rest aren't about to be swept. They do their own sweeping.
Monday night marked Montana's ninth consecutive victory in Anaheim, his own personal Disneyland.
This time the difference was two big 49er offensive plays--a 60-yard scoring pass from Montana to Rice and a 74-yard burst by rookie runner Dexter Carter--and a relentless defense that separated the NFL's best from one of its most disappointing.
Carter's run was the longest touchdown run in the NFC this season. And it was an almost perfect duplication of last week's game-turning 67-yard dash around the left side by New Orleans runner Gill Fenerty as Ram safety Vince Newsome again took the wrong angle on the runner.
"Last time we played them, they didn't get the big plays," Robinson said. "Their two big plays in the game tonight were pretty much the difference."
The Rams got no game-shaking big plays of their own against a scrappy 49er defense that was missing a Lott but not missing a beat. Ram quarterback Jim Everett completed 17 of his 35 passes for 232 yards and was intercepted twice, and the Rams managed only 53 rushing yards in 19 attempts.
Conversely, the 49ers piled up 173 rushing yards in 36 tries--thanks mainly to Carter's 124 yards in 13 carries. The Rams dared the 49ers to run again, using variations of six-back and seven-back defensive sets, but not only did the 49ers run, Montana found open passing lanes where last meeting he did not.
After Carter blew past the Rams' defense early in the fourth quarter to transform a 19-10 game into a 26-10 laugher, the Rams' season was over, with two meaningless games left.
But the Rams, who have been pounded in their three nationally televised night games this season and still have one left, said they will charge on this season.
"I always thought we'd dig ourselves out of the hole, but we never did," tackle Jackie Slater said. "The good thing about team sports is that, at times like this, you can find a bright side. I can look at my teammates, look them in the eye, and see no quit there."
They may not have quit, but the Rams were pushed around by the 49ers from the opening kickoff until the final gun. The Rams did not force the 49ers to punt until less than two minutes remained in the third quarter, and Everett didn't complete his second pass of the night until the game was well into the second quarter.
The 49ers started the scoring on their second possession, using their patented short-passing game to march for more than five minutes down to the Rams' five-yard before settling for Mike Cofer's 23-yard field goal. Montana completed five straight at one point, dinking and dunking to Rice and John Taylor on quick hits over the middle and his backs flying out to the flats.
On their next possession, the 49ers swallowed up 9:03 in 15 plays, scoring on fullback Tom Rathman's one-yard dive on fourth and goal. The 49ers converted three third downs and the one fourth-down try on the drive, but failed on the extra-point attempt when the snap was low and two 49ers ran into each other vying for holder Barry Helton's pass. That made it 9-0.
After a three-and-out Ram possession, the 49ers did it the quick way: a 60-yard pass to Rice streaking down the left sideline past Jerry Gray and Anthony Newman for a 16-0 lead.
The Rams mustered up a challenge as the half ticked down, moving 78 yards on a long drive of their own. Rookie wide receiver Derrick Faison caught the first touchdown pass of his NFL career to cap the drive, a perfectly thrown eight-yard lob by Everett over cornerback Darryl Pollard, closing the score to 16-7.
Everett, after starting out one for eight, completed four of his five passes on the drive, for 71 yards.
"I think their defense turned it up a notch, and we just couldn't score," Robinson said. "We just couldn't sustain it enough."
With the 49ers' defense harrying Everett into hurried throws and with the 49ers' secondary--led by free safety Dave Waymer and cornerback Don Griffin--swarming all over the timing patterns the Rams usually hit to Henry Ellard and Flipper Anderson with ease, the Rams' defense was under intense pressure to stuff the 49ers' offense. Too much pressure.
Then the Rams started the second half by fumbling away a snap on the second play of the third quarter to set up Cofer's second field goal of the night, a 31-yarder to push the 49ers' lead to 19-7.
The Rams came back with Lansford's chip shot field goal to narrow it to 19-10 late in the third, but Carter's gallop came just as the final period began.
When did it hit the Rams that they were absolutely out of the playoffs?
"When we walked in here right after the game and looked at each other," Pete Holohan said.
Ram inside linebacker Frank Stams suffered a right knee sprain in the first quarter and did not play after returning for one play. He will be examined this morning for possible cartilage damage. Guard Tom Newberry sprained his left ankle in the first half and rookie Bern Brostek played at his spot the rest of the way. Safety Vince Newsome suffered a left shoulder contusion. . . . Fumble-prone tailback Cleveland Gary did not get into the game until eight minutes remained in the third quarter, carried three times for 11 yards, caught two passes and did not fumble. Gaston Green started in his place and gained 34 yards in 12 carries. Gary had no comment when asked about his playing time.
Although the Rams were logically thrust from the playoff race after last month's loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Monday night's loss put the mathematical finishing touches on the season. The best the Rams can finish is 7-9, which would at best tie them with the Dallas Cowboys. Because the Rams lost their game against the Cowboys and also cannot finish with a better conference record than Dallas, the Rams cannot gain the one NFC wild-card berth still up for grabs.
The Rams also clinched their first losing record under John Robinson since 1987, and their first losing record in a non-strike season in Robinson's eight years as coach.