It appeared early this season that the power had shifted back to the Rams in the NFC West, but the teeter is tottering the 49ers' way again as they await Monday night's showdown in San Francisco. The Rams (9-4) have a one-game lead over the 49ers (8-5) going in.
Time was when the Rams dominated the series, even in years when the 49ers had the better team. From 1967 through 1980, the Rams won 23, lost 3 and tied 1, and they won 9 in a row from '76 through '80.
Then Joe Montana came along. No player has been as big a factor in turning the rivalry around as the third-round draft choice from Notre Dame.
Former Ram linebacker Jack (Hacksaw) Reynolds, who finished his career with the 49ers, recalled this week the instructions a Ram coach gave the defense in 1980, when Montana was backing up Steve DeBerg.
"Go in and sack (DeBerg), but don't hurt him," the Rams were told. "We don't want Montana in the game."
Once Montana got into a game against the Rams, it was all over. This season, he stopped their winning streak at seven by blowing them out in the first half, 28-0, at Anaheim. Final score: 28-14.
Montana has won seven of nine games against the Rams. He has thrown for 17 touchdowns and only two interceptions, and has enjoyed five of his 18 300-yard-plus passing games against them.
Give the Rams enough cracks at Montana and they'll put him in the Hall of Fame all by themselves.
He hasn't thrown an interception against them in his last 210 passes, covering three seasons and five-plus games, and he isn't likely to Monday night, if you put any stock in trends.
You may have noticed that the Rams aren't taking the ball away from anybody else lately, either.
Ram cornerback LeRoy Irvin said: "The reason he's been hot against us is we've let him. The plays he's made against us, we've done something wrong. You give him the opportunity to make a play, and he'll make it."
Before running into Montana and the 49ers this season, the Rams were 7-0 and led the National Football League in collecting opponents' mistakes: 11 fumbles and 18 interceptions.
Since then, they are 2-4 and have taken the ball away only nine times, on three fumbles and six interceptions.
"You force turnovers," Irvin said. "We'd like to think we're as aggressive as we were early in the season, but when we run the films back we see we're not getting to the ball like we were, and when we're getting to the ball we're not making the plays.
"What really got me after the first game was when (49er receiver Dwight) Clark made the statement that he thought we'd be more physical, and he's right."
If the Ram defensive fire has flickered out, Irvin doesn't know why.
"I wish I knew," Irvin said. "Earlier, we were hungry for recognition. Then we were riding pretty high and that part of the game got away from us. We've got to make things happen on defense again."
Irvin suspects that Montana is not invincible. He only looks that way against the Rams.
"They've been struggling on offense, too, and the teams that have been successful against them have been very physical," he said.
Fritz Shurmur, the Ram defensive coordinator, said: "We had a lot of takeaways early in the year, and a lot of that came from aggressive play, but a lot of it came from opportunity, too. People are playing us close to the vest, figuring they're gonna be involved in a low-scoring ballgame.
"You're gonna see, I think, a lower frequency of pass, a higher frequency of run. (Opponents) have decreased our chances to make big plays by not putting themselves in situations where we could tee off."
But, considering past performance, Montana would seem a fool not to pass against the Rams. It's been the quickest and safest route to the end zone.
Ram Notes Drug tests on Ram wide receiver Bobby Duckworth were negative. Duckworth, who was AWOL from the game at New Orleans last week, is suspended for the game at San Francisco Monday night but returned to practice last week. . . . The Rams hit bottom in passing this week when they were ranked last in the NFL, averaging only 152.8 yards a game. However, they have thrown fewer passes, 330, than anyone, and Dieter Brock is rated 13th among passers at 75.6. . . . The Rams are 25th in offense (14th rushing) and fifth in defense (fourth against rushing, 11th against passing). The 49ers rank seventh in offense and 13th in defense, but their defense hasn't given up a touchdown in 14 quarters.