Last saturday, the day before the Los Angeles Rams met the New York Giants in their NFC semifinal playoff game, the Rams jogged onto the field at Giants Stadium just after noon. What followed was not a practice but a frolic. The defensive backs played touch football. The defensive linemen snuck up behind the offensive linemen, whacked their fannies and ran for cover. Quarterback Jim Everett told a kid standing on the sidelines to go deep, and he hit him with a bomb. A security guy with a worried look approached coach John Robinson and asked if he should clear the place of spectators. "Nah, let 'em stay," said Robinson. "It's a fun day."
Then the Rams took a bus back to their hotel to complete their rigorous afternoon of training. They lay on their beds, watched TV between naps and ordered room service when they felt up to it. "We're loving this," said linebacker Kevin Greene, as he watched the Buffalo Bills duel the Cleveland Browns. "We're so loose. We've got a playful nature as a team, and it stems from Coach Robinson. He sets down one rule above all: Have fun. Have fun—as long as you get your work done, which we do—and you'll play well."
Nice game plan, coach. The next day Los Angeles continued its unlikely frolic through the Eastern time zone with a 19-13 overtime win, which ended with some Robinson-inspired fun. On the fourth play of OT, the Rams were on the New York 30-yard line with a first down. Almost everybody in the stadium expected L.A. to wham running back Greg Bell up the gut three times to set up a 40-yard Mike Lansford field goal try.
Accordingly, New York threw an eight-man front at the Rams, which left cornerback Mark Collins one-on-one with wideout Flipper Anderson. Collins futilely bumped Anderson two yards off the line. Then Anderson raced unhindered to the right corner of the end zone. Quarterback Jim Everett threw a perfect rainbow to Anderson, six inches beyond Collins's grasp. Anderson caught the ball, and he didn't stop running until he'd stuffed it into his locker.
That wrapped up L.A.'s frosty, three-week Victory Tour of the Northeast corridor. On Christmas Eve, the Rams beat the Patriots 24-20 in 20° Foxboro, Mass., to win a wild-card spot in the playoffs. On New Year's Eve, they defeated the Eagles 21-7 in 34° Philadelphia to advance to the NFC semis. And last week they knocked off the Giants in 38° East Rutherford, N.J., to advance to this week's conference championship against the 49ers.
Make no mistake: This team isn't going to San Francisco as sacrificial Rams. Los Angeles was the better team on Sunday, and it may be the only one in the NFL explosive enough to match Joe Montana & Co. blow-for-blow. "I know Joe'll light the board up," said Everett, who can too; he threw for more yards and more touchdowns than Montana did in the regular season. "I'll just have to work on holding up my end of it."
What a bitter loss it was for the Giants, who had overachieved throughout 1989 to win the NFC East with a 12-4 record. A walk through their locker room shows just how far they've come, and how quickly. Gone are Harry Carson and Jim Burt and many other starters from the team that won the Super Bowl in 1987. In their place are youngsters like Dave Meggett, Greg Jackson and Reyna Thompson. "When we ended last season, I knew that group had taken us as far as we could go," said Giants coach Bill Parcells early last week. "That same group would have been 7-9 or 8-8 this year, and we'd just have put off rebuilding a year."
Surviving the retooling were quarterback Phil Simms, 33, running back Ottis Anderson, 32, and linebacker Lawrence Taylor, 30. All three would be pivotal in the Giants' game plan. Simms would have to control the ball for around 36 to 37 minutes, to keep it out of Everett's potent hands. Anderson would have to rush 25 times or so, to run down the clock. And Taylor, who'd been ineffective, with three tackles and no sacks, in the Giants' 31-10 loss to the Rams in L.A. on Nov. 12, would have to find a way past pesky left tackle Irv Pankey.
So Parcells spent the week working on his vets in his jocular way. He told the tireless Simms that he was the league's most pampered quarterback. He dubbed Anderson "Encore" and wondered aloud if he had one more masterly performance left in him. Parcells saved his best barb, however, for Taylor.
The Friday before last, Parcells was sitting with Simms when Taylor, who'd been getting ribbed by Parcells all week about his poor effort against Pankey in November, wandered over. "I've got a plane ticket for you," Parcells told Taylor.
"Huh?" said Taylor.
"I want you to go to New Orleans, and I want you to take your helmet with you," said Parcells.
"Yup. Go find [Saints linebacker] Pat Swilling. You don't need your jersey, because he wears the same number. Give him your plane ticket and your helmet, and let him fly back here. You stay in New Orleans and have a nice time. He'll play, because he's the only guy who can handle Pankey. You can't."
Taylor stalked off. But the message got through. On Tuesday, for the first time in his career, Taylor lifted weights in the weight room twice in one day.
So the game would be a matchup between the loose and quick-strike Californians and the men on a mission from New Jersey who had to do everything right. And they did—for 28 minutes. Taylor cut off two Los Angeles drives with jarring sacks of Everett, and Anderson, who finished with a season-high 120 yards, rushed for 24 and 36 yards, respectively, on the Giants' first two drives. Both ended in field goals by Raul Allegre, and New York headed toward halftime ahead 6-0.
Then Everett began being Everett. The Giants, conservative to a fault all season, had the lead and the ball on their own nine-yard line with 1:45 to go in the half. This time Parcells uncharacteristically tried to get more. "What are we doing?" said one befuddled New York player as his team kept attacking. Five plays into the drive Simms threw the ball right at L.A. cornerback Jerry Gray. It ricocheted off Gray's hands to safety Michael Stewart, who returned it 29 yards to the Giants' 20. Bang! Everett to Anderson at the goal line, and the Rams led 7-6.
"They'd thrown everything but the kitchen sink at us—Anderson, Taylor, all kinds of pass patterns—and we came into the locker room ahead," said L.A. corner LeRoy Irvin.
Robinson's light-and-lively mind immediately went to work. "I try to give the players something visual at half-time," said Robinson later. "So I told them that was our rope-a-dope half. They were Ali, and they kept letting the Giants hit 'em and hit 'em. I told them it was our time to hit back."
The Rams would have the ball six more times. Each time they would get into Giants territory. It was only a matter of time, it seemed, before they would win.
But the Giants didn't fall easily. Anderson finished an 82-yard drive with a two-yard TD run late in the third quarter to put New York ahead 13-7. Then the Rams chipped away and chipped away, tying the score with two Lansford field goals in the fourth quarter.
The only leftover from Los Angeles's 1980 Super Bowl team, tackle Jackie Slater, made the next important decision. "Heads," he said when ref Bob McElwee threw the coin up before overtime. Heads it was.
After passing for a pair of first downs in OT, Everett sent Flipper Anderson on a deep slant, and as Anderson dived for the ball, cornerback Sheldon White dived on his back. The play was close. Field judge Bernie Kukar called it interference on White. The Giants called it many things, among them, an uncatchable ball. "Superman couldn't have caught that," said White.
With a first down at the New York 25, Robinson planned to shove Bell up the middle for three plays and then let Lansford try to win the game. But Slater got whistled for a false start, sending the ball back to the 30. So Robinson sent in play 8-44, which calls for Anderson and Henry Ellard, who caught eight passes for 125 yards, to line up way wide on opposite sides and try to attract single coverage. Tight end Pete Holohan is the safety valve. The Rams got what they wanted. Anderson later said he came to the line "trying to seem very nonchalant, so he (Collins] wouldn't know anything was up." Better still, for the first time all afternoon, Collins, who had been playing well off the line of scrimmage, tried to bump Anderson at the line.
"I was glad he bumped me," said Anderson. "He can only touch me for five yards, then it's a footrace. I like my chances in a footrace with anybody."
"I got a good enough piece of him so he never should have caught the ball," said Collins. "I wish it hadn't been a perfect pass, but it was."
After Anderson made the catch, he kept going, through the end zone, past an army of photographers and into the bowels of the stadium. He took a right into the Rams locker room and was still bouncing with glee 15 seconds later when his best friend. Ram wideout Aaron Cox, crashed in and tackled him to the floor, bruising Anderson's jaw. A playful pileup ensued.
Are the Rams having fun yet? They certainly are. Which could mean no fun for the 49ers.
Anderson caught the game-winner over Collins, who had tried to play bump-and-run.
Besides sacking Everett twice, Taylor caused him to fumble.
In an Encore performance, New York's Anderson picked up 120 yards on 24 carries.
Despite a slow start, Everett ended up completing 25 of 44 attempts for 315 yards.