Ronnie Lott, dasher of countless Ram dreams, made a mad dash from out of nowhere again Sunday, just in time to ruin another Ram drive toward victory and conjure a 20-17 Raider victory at the Coliseum.
Old Ram ghosts don't go away, they just come back in the fourth quarter right as the Rams are ready to pull away for good.
With about seven minutes left, ahead 17-10 and poised on the Raider eight-yard line, Ram quarterback Jim Everett couldn't see Lott. Jim Price didn't know where he was either.
And the Rams thought they were about to put a victory over the Raiders in their pockets, their hopes of reeling off three consecutive victories come true.
Then Lott, best known for his Ram-paging as a San Francisco 49er, sliced in front of Price at the back of the end zone, reached to intercept Everett's soft pass, and the Rams' familiar nightmare began again.
"We play a game where we're moving up and down the field the entire game, and then in the fourth quarter we have a few things happen to us," said Everett, shaking his head.
By the time it was over, the Rams had blown a 17-10 fourth-quarter lead, blown their big chance to stuff the Raider offense at crunch time, blown their shot to pull out the game in the end, and blown a shot at forcing the Raiders to try a difficult field goal at the end.
By the time it was over, the Rams (3-4) were left to quietly concede that Lott had done them in again.
Twice, including the Lott interception, the Rams lost the ball as they verged on scoring touchdowns, the first coming at the end of the first half when Everett and Doug Smith miscommunicated on a snap at the Raider one-yard line.
And when the Rams needed it most, their defense suffered a quick collapse, yielding a five-play, 80-yard drive to the Raiders after Lott's end zone grab to make it 17-17.
Then, with about four minutes left, an Everett pass deflected off Howie Long's helmet into the arms of Lott, who always seems to be there when the Rams most want to give away a game.
The Raiders' offense suddenly snapped to life, took possession at the Ram 39 and methodically set up Jeff Jaeger's game-winning, 34-yard field goal with two seconds remaining.
The Rams, who could have jumped above .500 for the first time in two seasons with a victory, later said they were not ruined by this loss.
"I would be discouraged if we lost this game and we didn't move the ball," said Everett of a Ram offense that amassed 347 yards. "We moved the heck out of the ball. We beat up a damn good football team, (but) we lost the game.
"I wish that we could take a couple plays back, because that's what it came down to, but we played hard. Our offensive line did a hell of a job against their front. Everyone did a good job catching the ball. It just came down to a couple plays that I wish we could change around, but we can't."
The primary one, the Rams agreed, was Lott's first interception. If Lott doesn't make it, the Rams said afterward, none of what happened later would have happened at all.
But he did, and it did, and if veteran Rams were flashing back to his breakup of an Everett-to-Flipper Anderson long pass in the NFC championship game two seasons ago or any other time Lott's 49ers ended Ram dreams, they could be pardoned, even if Lott Plan B'd his way into a silver and black uniform during the off-season.
Lott, by the way, does these things to other teams, too--last week, his interception in overtime set up the Raiders' 20-17 victory over the Seahawks.
The Rams, newly-confident in a once-moribound passing attack behind Everett (he was 22 of 35 and had his first 300-yard game of the season), chose the hammer blow instead of the safe way out Sunday. Lott made them pay for it.
"We felt like we wanted to be aggressive," Coach John Robinson said, explaining why his team didn't play conservatively and settle for a field goal and 10-point lead at that point.
"We were aggressive, trying to go for it, and Jim thought he had him for a touchdown that would've put the game out of reach. But (Lott) intercepted it, and then they came alive and made some plays to get down there and get the touchdown to tie the game.
"Then, we had to try to move the football to try to score. We threw one off somebody's helmet and it went into the air and that was pretty much the story."
A familiar story, too, for Ram fans who have seen enough of Lott's larceny and for Everett, who could only tip his hat to his old foe.
"Jimbo was open, and I just tried to lay it in for him, and Ronnie came from all the way on the other side of the field and picked it off," Everett said. "Ronnie and I have had these rivalries going back and forth for a long time, and he got the better of it down the stretch."
After the resulting touchback, the Raiders did not delay. Quarterback Jay Schroeder (15 of 26 for 271 yards on the day) connected with running back Nick Bell for 24 yards over the reach--and illegal contact--of Kevin Greene, whose first full-time try at linebacker in the Rams' 4-3 defense saw mixed results at best.
The next play, Schroeder threw a pass to receiver Tim Brown for 45 yards, moving the Raiders to the Ram 11 after Brown had lost cornerback Jerry Gray. Two plays and a penalty later, Bell tied it on a one-yard surge.
After Everett had a second pass intercepted, the ball Long deflected with his helmet, the Ram defense could have forced a 50-yard Jaeger field goal with at least a minute left. Instead, they allowed the Raiders to chew up the remaining time and get to the Ram 16.
Jaeger's kick was clean all the way, his second field goal of the day.
"You can beat us, you can pound us, you can make us bleed," said Raider defensive tackle Bob Golic, "but we're not going to give up."
The Rams, too, had fortitude in the face of difficulty on their minds after this one.
"(This is) not a potentially devastating loss," Robinson said, choosing to highlight his team's improvement from their early-season woes.
"We need to win six out of the next nine and we would be where we would want to be. I think most of the games that we'll play from now on will be these kinds of games. We've got to be able to come out on the top end of these kinds of games."
Kevin Greene's now-you-see-him-at-linebacker, now-you-don't situation didn't get much clearer Sunday. In his first full-time action there since John Robinson said that linebacker was his best position, Greene had trouble dropping deep enough into coverage. The Raiders frequently threw medium-range passes his way, and defensive coordinator Jeff Fisher said Greene would be at end at least through next week when the Rams face the run-and-shoot Atlanta Falcons.
But Greene, who played at end the first four games with limited preparation, said he was pleased with the results, and was praised by Fisher.
"I was happy I didn't make any mental errors this game," Greene said. "I knew where I was going. I was able to absorb a lot of material this week and I was able to apply it in the game."
Said Fisher: "He did a good job in coverage. For the preparation he did at outside linebacker, he did a pretty good job. But next week, it changes. He's not going to be a linebacker. He's going to rush the run-and-shoot."
Greene said he didn't mind getting pulled for one series late in the game when Fisher thought the Raiders were going to pass. "Who knows? Look at this next game, look at who we play, primarily a run-and-shoot team," Greene said. "So I might be playing nose guard. Who knows?"
The Rams reported no serious injuries.