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Rams Fumble Away Chance for an Upset : Pro football: Everett passes for 346 yards, but fourth-quarter turnover, late penalty are costly in 24-17 loss to Saints.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Perilously close to pulling out a season-resurrecting victory, the Rams lost.

It was another Ram near-miss, another fourth-quarter museum of mistakes Sunday as the Rams missed out on an upset of the front-running New Orleans Saints.

The Rams are 3-6 now, after losing, 24-17, before a sellout Anaheim Stadium crowd of 58,713, and veering toward the deep end as their list of near victories piles up and their playoff aspirations vanish into the wind.

“We’ve got to be the dumbest bunch of guys in the world,” said Coach John Robinson after it was over, exasperation getting the better of his usual post- game motivational message. “We let another one get away from us.”

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The Rams outgained the Saints (8-1), they threw for 346 yards against the No. 1 defense in the league, and they almost shackled the injury-depleted New Orleans offense in the second half.

It wasn’t enough. The Rams now have lost to New Orleans four times in a row, lost eight in a row to NFC West opponents and lost five in a row to the Saints in Anaheim.

How did the Rams flub this one? Four turnovers, several key defensive breakdowns in the late moments, and a personal-foul penalty that dampened the Rams’ final chance at tying the score conspired to keep the Rams frustrated and fuming.

“It’s getting old, man,” tailback Robert Delpino said. “We’re virtually giving teams wins. We beat ourselves again. And it really hurts to say this each week, but it’s true.”

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Said linebacker Kevin Greene: “This really hurts. I’ve got to go scream into the wind, beat up a few trees, do something . . . “

In those key fourth-quarter moments, the Rams were driving inside the Saints’ 10-yard line to tie it up, then fumbled it away.

It was the first play of the fourth quarter that turned the game around. Bad things have happened to the Rams in the fourth quarter all season.

This time, Saint linebacker Pat Swilling burst past tackle Gerald Perry and swiped the ball loose from quarterback Jim Everett’s arm. Rickey Jackson recovered at the Saint 15.

The Rams stopped the Saints, got the ball back again, then punted. They had the Saints all but stopped on their ensuing drive, then yielded four huge first downs and eventually a touchdown.

They could have won, then didn’t.

It was not lost on the Rams Sunday that a similar series of embarrassing events--two crucial interceptions--in the late-going of their near victory against the Raiders two weeks ago soured that solid performance, too.

“This game was there to be won,” Robinson said. “The Raider game was there to be won.

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“We have played games where we are playing the game well enough to say, ‘Hey, these guys can win this game and here’s where they’re going to win it.’ Then all of a sudden, oops, something went wrong.”

This game had a group of oops, beginning with a first-quarter interception thrown by Everett to back Vince Buck, setting up a Saints’ field goal for a 3-0 lead.

Everett threw three interceptions, but also threw for 346 yards, the most the Saints have yielded this season, and stayed fairly resolute against the Saints’ rush. In their last meeting, Everett was sacked five times and looked devastated in the Saints’ 24-7 victory.

The Saints were ahead by 10-0 before the Rams answered back, using Delpino’s 78-yard pass play to set up Tony Zendejas’ 31-yard field goal--the first points against the Saints in the first quarter this season.

The Rams tied it late in the half on a Delpino touchdown run after strong safety Michael Stewart intercepted a Steve Walsh pass and made things chaotic by lateraling to rookie Todd Lyght, who made things more chaotic by lateraling wildly to Pat Terrell, who simply fell on the ball at the Saint 31.

But the Rams, who have yielded a number of late-half scoring drives, handed away another one when tight end Jim Price fumbled an Everett pass as the Rams were hurrying up the field minutes later.

Three plays later, Walsh, subbing for injured starter Bobby Hebert, lofted it to receiver Wesley Carroll through the hands of Stewart and into the end zone for a 17-10 lead.

“Any number of times, throughout the game, when it came down to it,” Robinson said, “we were just a step away or maybe a little uncertain . . . but whatever it is, we have to deal with it . . . “

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The Ram defense stopped the Saints three consecutive times in the second half, but the Rams offense could not take advantage of the opportunities.

One drive was stopped by another Everett interception. The next by the Swilling sack-and-fumble, another by an eight-yard reception by Price on third and nine.

But after the Saints took the ball 79 yards for what seemed like the clinching touchdown by Buford Jordan with less than five minutes to play, the Rams did not die.

Everett completed three passes to receiver Flipper Anderson, recovering from a back injury, the last a 15-yard scoring throw with more than two minutes left.

The Saints chewed up some time, but had to punt the ball away with a minute left. Then came one last Ram oops. Vernon Turner took the punt to the Ram 21, but Lyght drew a personal foul after the play, putting the Rams on their 10.

“We tried,” Anderson said. “We really tried.”

It was too much. The Rams got to their 48-yard line before time overcame them. Everett was intercepted on his final desperation try.

“We’re getting better, I think, but we’ve got to get a little more savvy, maybe a little more cunning about the way we approach certain plays,” tackle Jackie Slater said.

“We’ve shown we can play with the big guys, but it is getting frustrating. We need to win one. We need to win one as soon as possible.”

Rams Notes

Four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Jerry Gray didn’t start, but he did see a lot of time in the Rams’ nickel defense defending the slot receiver. Gray had originally thought he was totally out of the Rams’ plan on defense. . . . Marcus Dupree carried three times for five yards. . . . The Rams’ 346 passing yards was their best day of the season through the air.

* FLAG FOOTBALL: Once again the Rams are victimized by their penchant for costly penalties at critical times. C8


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