The Rams thought they had seen the last of Ronnie Lott after 10 years of terror in the NFC West. What harm could he do from another conference?
How about single-handedly--OK, he needed some help from a teammate's head--transform almost certain victory into a stunning 20-17 defeat?
You can take the man out of a division, subtract dollars from his paycheck, add a few more aches to his knees, but you do not lose Ronnie Lott simply by wishing him away.
Now playing center field for the Raiders, Lott stole another Sunday afternoon from the Rams, intercepting two-fourth quarter passes to lead his team to a comeback victory before a crowd of 85,102 at the Coliseum.
Lott is running out of daggers to stick in Ram hopes.
The mechanics of victory were left to Jeff Jaeger, who kicked a 34-yard field goal with two seconds remaining. But the victory and all its emotions were orchestrated by Lott, who all but recycled the blueprint from last week's comeback thriller against Seattle.
In that game, a dramatic Lott interception in overtime led to the game-winning field goal.
Lott was even better Sunday against this backdrop: The Raider situation was bleak. The Rams had a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter and were looking to make it 14 when quarterback Jim Everett let loose a pass from the Raider eight to tight end Jim Price in the end zone. But there was that man again.
"Ronnie and I have had these rivalries going back and forth for a long time," Everett said of Lott, the longtime San Francisco 49er. "He got the better of it down the stretch."
Lott saw victory in Everett's eyes, then snatched it away.
"You could see that before Everett released the ball, that it was like, 'Yes, I got this one, this is a touchdown,' " Lott said. "When he released the ball, he kind of floated it because there was nobody there. He didn't account for me."
A bad mistake in accounting.
Lott intercepted Everett's effort with 6:22 left, and it sent shock waves through the Raider offense, which blew 80 yards down the field in five plays for the game-tying touchdown. Rookie Nick Bell capped the drive with a one-yard run with 4:08 left.
The spirit of last week's comeback filled the air.
"You can beat us, pound on us, make us bleed," nose tackle Bob Golic said, "but we are not going to give up."
The Rams cursed Lott and their luck, but the game was still theirs to win with four minutes remaining. On second and 10 at his 20, though, Everett tried to sneak a pass over the middle to tight end Damone Johnson. But the pass bounced off defensive end Howie Long's helmet and into the arms of Lott at the Ram 39 with 3:07 left.
Later, teammate Golic would attempt to give Long credit for the astutely turning his head to cause the interception, but no one was buying it. Howie's header was blind luck.
So was Lott's second interception. Why is he always so lucky against the Rams?
The Raider offense, it turned out, did more than merely get Jaeger into comfortable field-goal range. In so doing, they consumed the rest of the clock, preventing the Rams from a comeback of their own.
A key play was delivered by Bell, who ran seven yards on third and six to the Ram 16. After that, the Rams could only watch, wait and hope for a rare Jaeger blunder.
The Raiders ran the clock down to seven seconds, called time out and sent in Jaeger, who had missed a 32-yard attempt earlier in the quarter. Jaeger had made 18 of 20 attempts before the miss, but the flub had no effect on his game-winner.
What effect it has on the Rams, 3-4, remains to be seen. This was a game they generally dominated until Lott entered the picture.
"We play a game where we were moving up and down the field the entire game, and then in the fourth quarter we have a few things happen to us," Everett said.
Oh, but for a few key plays:
--Near the end of the first half, the Rams led, 10-7, and had a first and goal at the Raider one-yard line, only to lose the opportunity when Everett and center Doug Smith botched a simple center snap. The ball caromed off of Everett's chest and into a pile of players.
Raider linebacker Riki Ellison saw the ball squirt free out of the corner of his eye.
"I caught a glimpse of it," he said.
One glimpse was enough.
When the bodies were untangled, Ellison had recovered the fumble and the Rams had a halftime to think about it.
The fumbled center snap brought back memories of a Monday night in 1989, when a similar center snafu between Everett and Smith cost the Rams a big win over the 49ers.
Funny, Lott was on the field for that one too.
--In the third quarter, Ram punt returner Vernon Turner made a mistake when he fielded a booming Jeff Gossett kick inside his own 10.
A penalty pushed the Rams back further to their own three, from which there was no escape. Turner's error in judgment forced a punt from Dale Hatcher, and the Raiders got the ball back at the Ram 43. The favorable field position led to a 35-yard field goal from Jaeger, tying the game at 10-10.
The Rams came right back, though, Turner gaining some redemption for his error by catching a 19-yard scoring pass from Everett with 6:06 left in the quarter. Turner had made the most of his first NFL reception.
Down 17-10, the Raider offense continued to sputter. There had not been much life since the Raiders answered the Rams' opening touchdown drive (a four-yard scoring pass to Robert Delpino) with with one of their own, a nine-yard pass from Jay Schroeder to Willie Gault.
Late in the third quarter, Roger Craig dropped what could have been a touchdown pass on third down. The Raiders' next drive ended when Jaeger missed a 32-yard field goal attempt.
Their next drive was halted when Ram linebacker Larry Kelm stopped Bell cold for no gain on third and one, forcing a punt.
From his own 38, it took Everett two plays to get to the Raider 11. On first down he found Delpino open for a 38-yard gain. From the 25, Cleveland Gary rushed for 14 yards and the Rams seemed eager to put the game away.
Like last week in Seattle when they trailed 17-0 at the half, the Raiders needed a minor miracle.
"There were some doubts, yeah," said Schroeder, who waited for a another chance from the sideline. "But I don't think anybody gave up. We were just looking for someone to make a big play."
The someone, of course, was Lott, who obliged with two back-breaking interceptions on consecutive Ram possessions.
Ram Coach John Robinson thought Lott's first interception was the killer. Robinson will be second-guessed by some for having Everett throw into the end zone on second down instead of playing it safe and settling for a field goal, which would have given his team a 10-point lead with six minutes remaining..
Robinson argued that he wanted to stay aggressive. Everett, to that point, had indeed been rather spectacular. The Rams went for the jugular.
But Ronnie Lott wouldn't bite. So what's new?
Of Lott's end zone interception, Robinson would say: "I thought that was the game turner. The other one, you know, it was Howie Long's helmet that made it. I don't see that one the same as I see some of the things he's done. The one he made last week and the one he made in the end zone there, those are all plays than an unusual human being makes."
* NOTES: Howie Long really knows how to use his head. C8
* LOTT: He easily could have been playing in Anaheim. C9
* ANALYSIS: It was Rams' best game, until the end. C10