It was all supposed to be so simple, you see. On Sunday the world-champion San Francisco 49ers, winners of 10 straight games this season and an NFL record-tying 18 in a row over the last two years, were to knock over the hapless Los Angeles Rams (3-7 entering the game) and then play the likewise undefeated New York Giants in a dream game this coming Monday night in Candlestick Park. By beating the Rams, the Niners would break the consecutive-win record they shared with the Chicago Bears of 1933-34 and 1941-42 and the Miami Dolphins of 1972-73, and clinch yet another NFC West division title. Just like that.
How could it be otherwise? Through the first 11 weeks of the season, the Niners and four other NFL powerhouses were tearing through the schedule unchallenged, except on those rare occasions when they lined up against one another. Entering Sunday's games, the Chicago Bears, the Buffalo Bills and the Miami Dolphins—as well as the two unbeatens—had a combined 46-4 record. Only one other team, the Los Angeles Raiders, could boast of having fewer than four defeats. For the Big Five it was a charmed existence indeed.
Until Sunday, and the peasants' revolt.
First, the Minnesota Vikings trashed the 9-1 Bears, the runaway leaders in the NFC Central, 41-13. Then the Philadelphia Eagles dominated the NFC East-leading Giants on both sides of the ball and sent the anticipated Monday-night matchup of unbeatens up in smoke with a 31-13 victory. What's more, the 6-4 Cincinnati Bengals lost 34-20 to the heretofore sickly Indianapolis Colts, surrendering sole possession of the AFC Central lead, while the Raiders fell to 7-4 and relinquished a share of the top spot in the AFC West to their 27-24 conquerors, the Kansas City Chiefs.
But the most stunning uprising was staged by the Rams, an angry team that came north looking desperately for a way to resurrect a season spinning out of control. And they found it, in a windy, rainswept, 28-17 victory over the 49ers. One win may not a season make, but, said linebacker Kevin Greene, Sunday's victory got the Rams "out of the cruise control we've been in all season."
So much for the Game of the Century this Monday. So much for a record 19th consecutive win. So much for expectations that the Niners would clinch a fifth straight NFC West title faster than you can say Jesse Sapolu. The Rams knocked all of that into a cocked hat. "It was a muddy, slow, kick-out, drag-out type of game," said jubilant Ram running back Cleveland Gary.
Even the downpour was an upset in a city beset the last few years by severe drought. Indeed, nothing went according to plan for the 49ers on this dark day.
The Rams gored the NFL's leading offense, intercepting the sainted Joe Montana three times while obliging him to search vainly for open receivers in a secondary occupied most of the time by anywhere from five to seven defensive backs. A running game might have thwarted these radical tactics, but the Niners haven't had one all year, and on Sunday they gained only 66 yards on the ground. On offense the Rams mixed medium-to-long passes from quarterback Jim Everett to wide receiver Flipper Anderson with hard charges up a surprisingly vulnerable 49er middle by Gary and Buford McGee, a tandem that accounted for 104 yards rushing and all four L.A. touchdowns.
"It's the best we've ever done knocking their defensive line off the ball," said John Robinson, who, though he has more wins (75 in eight seasons) than any other coach in Ram history, has been under fire in recent weeks. Of course, six 49er turnovers and some assistance, as Niner linebacker Matt Millen observed, "from the football gods" didn't hurt either.
In one bizarre first-quarter sequence, the two teams handed the ball back and forth on fumbles and an interception on three consecutive plays. And three plays after that giveaway orgy, Greene recovered yet another 49er fumble, by running back Tom Rathman. Four plays later, L.A. scored the game's first touchdown, from 22 yards out on a play that was not so much "drag-out" football as far-out.
McGee, taking a handoff from Everett, slid along the right side of his line wishbone-style and, when cornered, flipped the ball forward to Gary, who had slipped past a charging Ronnie Lott and discovered a free path to the end zone. This play was meant to be an option lateral, but, said McGee, "there was Gary in front of me, where he wasn't supposed to be." Since McGee was behind the line of scrimmage when he released the ball, the play was scored as a forward pass. A touchdown pass.
Another San Francisco fumble set up the Rams second touchdown, a 10-yard gallop by Gary Then those gods mentioned by Millen entered the fray on an 80-yard L.A. drive at the end of the first half. On second-and-eight from his own 22, Everett found Anderson alone for a 53-yard gain, the Flipper having corkscrewed Niner corner Darryl Pollard into the turf with an inside move. At third-and-nine on the San Francisco 24 with 1:06 left in the half Everett hit 49er safety Dave Waymer in the hands on the left sideline, but Waymer couldn't hold on, and the ball bounced directly to Anderson, who was tackled at the six. "On days like this," said Waymer afterward, "these guys could probably rob a bank and not get caught." On the next play, McGee scored up the middle. Anderson had caught only 25 passes all year before this game (albeit for a 22.9-yard average per catch), but he had eight receptions on Sunday for 149 yards.
As the second half began, the rain was falling in earnest, but Montana appeared to be readying the 49ers for one of their patented comebacks by scoring 10 points in the third quarter, closing to 21-17. Not quite two minutes into the final quarter, Montana launched what he felt certain would be the go-ahead touchdown pass to Jerry Rice, but Montana failed to see Ram safety Vince Newsome bearing down on Rice. "I thought he was out of the play," said Montana. He wasn't. The pass was underthrown, and Newsome picked it off at the Ram 10, falling to the turf in Rice's frustrated grasp.
The Rams set out on a 90-yard drive that ate up 10:37 and ended with Gary's crossing the goal line from the one with 2:31 left to play. The league's leading tumbler (he has eight) among running backs, Gary dropped Everett's pitch, but caught the ball on the bounce and stepped in untouched to complete the scoring. The gods again.
"We needed that," said Robinson. Said Everett, "I wish we could play the 49ers every week, because playing them brings up our level of performance a notch or two." The Rams have now won their regular-season meeting with the 49ers at Candlestick Park for three straight years.
The 49ers were at a loss to account for such a bleak performance. It's not that they had been blowing opponents off the field this year—four of their 10 wins have been by four points or less—but they had always muddled through. The Ram nickel defense bothered the offense, and the wet turf slowed a Niner defensive line that depends more, said end Pierce Holt, "on change of direction" tactics than on brute force. And maybe, said guard Harris Barton, "it was a mistake that we saw the score of the Giants game first." But the 49ers would never look past such a traditional rival as L.A., would they? "No," insisted Montana. "There was no reason to look ahead. We wanted to win the division this week."
"I think now that both the Giants and the 49ers are on a mission after what happened to us today," said San Francisco tackle Bubba Paris. After all, agreed Niner guard Guy McIntyre, "you have to use your pitfalls as stepping stones." Or be a stick-in-the-mud.