The Los Angeles Rams may make it past the Baltimore Colts next Sunday. They could just win the NFL championship and go on to the Super Bowl, but whatever they do they are going to have a hard time surpassing last Saturday's performance in Los Angeles. Certainly, it is difficult to conceive of an adequate encore for the wild, literally last-minute 27-24 victory they managed over Green Bay before 76,637 raucous adherents in Memorial Coliseum.
With two minutes and 19 seconds to go, Green Bay, playing with its usual methodical skill but without the special flair it seems to reserve for really big occasions, went ahead of Los Angeles 24-20 on a four-yard thrust by Chuck Mercein, of all people. But unlikelier things were to come.
With 55 seconds to play, the Packers lined up to punt from their own 27-yard line and the Rams, having used up all their time-outs during the short Packer offensive series, faced the prospect of getting the ball deep in their own territory and trying to piece together a touchdown drive from there.
Instead, they blocked the punt and Claude Crabb, who recovered, took the ball to the Packer five. Then, with 34 seconds to play, Roman Gabriel lofted a dinky little pass to Bernie Casey, and Casey—who must have looked to the startled Packer defenders like the loneliest end in football history—caught the ball for a touchdown deep in the Green Bay end zone.
The Rams, of course, had expected something like this all along. They even expected to block Donny Anderson's punt. Marion Campbell, an assistant coach, sent the stratagem in. It is a system that the Rams, like all pro football teams, work on for a few brief moments each week, just so it will be available in an emergency. Instead of trying to hold up the opposing team at the line of scrimmage in hopes of a long punt runback, they station eight men on the line in gaps between the blockers. In Los Angeles' case, Tony Guillory, a substitute linebacker with good height and speed, plays head to head on the center and goes whichever way he feels is open.
"This time I went to my right," Guillory said after the game in a Ram dressing room that was tremulous with joy. "The center's got his head down for the snap, so you get a good jump on him and I got off right with the ball. My assignment on the play is really to draw a block from the fullback, so one of the outside guys can come in free. This time nobody touched me and I came right up the middle."
Guillory hit the ball with the side of his left wrist and it wobbled into the hands of Crabb, a substitute defensive back. The full rush had loosed a band of Rams in the Packer backfield, and Crabb had an escort of seven teammates as he set out for the Green Bay goal line. Blinded by the excitement of it all, not to say his own bad eyesight, Guillory almost knocked Crabb down trying to get in front to block.
"I can't see at all without my glasses," he said. "I didn't know Claude had the ball, and I couldn't read the numbers anyway."
Anderson circled around to the front of the milling group of Rams shepherding Crabb and finally nailed him on the Packer five-yard line. By the time Gabriel and the Ram offensive unit lined up for the first play there was barely half a minute left and Gabriel, who is becoming a better quarterback game by game, wasted an incomplete pass to stop the clock.
Tackle Roger Brown of the Rams' big front defensive foursome remembered watching from the sideline. "I wasn't worried about scoring a touchdown," claimed Brown, a massive man bloodied from a cut across the bridge of his nose. "When we blocked the punt, I knew we would get the score. If we had to pick up a man and throw him into the end zone with the ball, we're going to get the score. The touchdown was the frosting on the cake. The blocked punt was the winner, man."
The frosting was pretty fancy, at that. Most of the huge crowd had started to leave the stadium when the Rams again lost possession to the Packers following the final Green Bay touchdown, and then they stood quietly at their seats or in the aisles watching as Gabriel brought the team out of the huddle, second and five. It is a mark of the confidence the Rams' young coach, George Allen, has in Gabriel that—with a whole season hanging in the balance—he allowed him to make his own play selection.
The obvious call was a drive into the line. The Rams, accordingly, lined up in a tight formation, both ends in close to the tackles. Casey was flanked a yard outside the Ram left end. Opposite him was Bob Jeter, with the Green Bay safeties a bit deeper in the end zone.
At the snap, Gabriel faked a handoff to Tommy Mason, who drove straight ahead, carrying out the deception beautifully.
"My responsibility depends on what the end does," Jeter explained later. "I have to read run if he blocks, and he did block."
Casey hesitated a moment as Jeter came up to meet the simulated run, then sprinted hard to his left into the end zone, away from the safety, who had been immobilized by the fake run. Casey was yards in the open when he caught the pass.
The victory, as the millions who watched the game on TV already know only too well, sets up another supergame for the Rams this Sunday, against the Baltimore Colts. Although the Rams trail Baltimore by a full game, a win over the Colts will give them the Coastal Division championship. This is so because of a rule adopted this year for the express purpose of avoiding playoff games. In case of a tie in the final standings, the rule states, the club with the higher total of points in the two games played between the tying teams is the division champion. The Rams and the Colts tied 24-24 when they met last October in Baltimore, so whoever wins this week will be champion. A tie game, however, would leave the Rams half a game out.
The race in the Coastal Division now is the only one still to be decided. In St. Louis last weekend the Cleveland Browns effectively suppressed the dying gasps of the Cardinals to capture the Century Division title. Green Bay and the Dallas Cowboys had already finished first in their divisions, the Central and the Capitol.
Allen, who is now the Rams' most successful coach, conducted his usual post-game conference in a husky, shaky voice.
"Baltimore?" he asked softly, smiling. "I don't know about Baltimore. I'm going to drink a glass of milk and then I'm going to get dressed and have a slow glass of blackberry brandy and then I'll start to think about Baltimore."
If Allen seemed wary, he had a right to be. His team made several egregious errors in the Packer game before settling down. Allen hopes that the momentum gained from Saturday's victory will serve to make the Rams a calmer team against Baltimore, which they will need to be.
In the first half, the Packers blocked a field-goal attempt and capitalized on the break almost immediately when Bart Starr coolly hit Carroll Dale with a 30-yard touchdown pass. "Looks like the same old story," a disgruntled Ram official observed. "They wait until we make a mistake—and wham."
As it turned out, the story changed. Gabriel, working on short passes and runs, got the touchdown back on a fine pass to Jack Snow behind Jeter in the Packer end zone. The teams then settled down to a tierce struggle of defenses. But in the second quarter Gabriel inexplicably went to long passes. Two were intercepted but the Ram defense rescued the team after these breaks and all Green Bay got out of both was one field goal.
In the second half Gabriel forsook the long pass to concentrate on quick look-ins or passes out to the sidelines. Soon he put the Rams ahead 14-10 with another pass to Snow for a touchdown, this one from 11 yards out. A field goal shortly afterward made it 17-10.
All during the first half, in deference to the extraordinary running ability of Travis Williams, the Rams had used squib kicks when kicking off. Now, heady with the seven-point lead, they boomed one and Williams caught it four yards deep in the end zone. He is 6'1" and weighs 210, but he has run a legitimate 9.3 hundred. He came out of the end zone at express speed. He crashed headlong into big Tackle Bob Nichols at the 15-yard line. The impact might have felled a smaller man than Williams. Instead it knocked Nichols out of one shoe as Williams bounced three yards sideways and landed balanced and running. When he hit the sideline, he was cleared all the way to the goal line.
In past years so shocking a contretemps might have devastated the Rams, but not this time. They went on to the win that brings them up to what will be the most important game in their history—the contest Sunday against the Baltimore Colts.
Late in its game in St. Louis the next day, Cleveland found itself in a position similar to Green Bay's. The Browns were forced to punt when they were ahead by just four points, 20-16, with little more than a minute to go. But lightning did not strike twice. Gary Collins got his punt away, and the clock ran out on the St. Louis bid.
Now the Browns must face the Dallas Cowboys in Dallas on December 24 in the divisional playoff for the Eastern Conference championship. The Browns have had a good year and it might have been an even better one had Frank Ryan been completely healthy all season long. Their pair of running backs—Leroy Kelly and Ernie Green—is the best in football, and in Paul Warfield and Collins they have fine targets for Ryan's passes.
But the Cowboys can almost match Kelly and Green, and they certainly equal Warfield and Collins with their receivers, led by Bob Hayes. Their defense is even better, probably ranking behind only the Rams' and Green Bay's. Dallas should beat Cleveland.
As the Rams and Packers left the field in Los Angeles, three spectators carefully took down a sign they had displayed all through the bright, crisp afternoon. It read DEACON JONES FOR SECRETARY OF DEFENSE. Jones had a good day against Green Bay, often forcing Starr to scramble for time to throw.
"We got to get to Johnny U. next week," he said. "Maybe then I'll take a job as Secretary of Defense."
Johnny Unitas is the most difficult of all passers to rush because of his exceptionally quick release and his ability to find receivers in a fraction of a second. And the Colt offensive line provides him with extraordinary protection. The Rams cannot afford to make the same kind of mistakes against the Colts that they committed against Green Bay. If they-do not, they will win, and it may not even be a squeaker.