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Rams Will Try to Keep the Magic Alive : Pro football: After upsetting the Chiefs last week, they will seek a rare second consecutive victory in rematch against the Falcons at Anaheim Stadium today.

October 02, 1994|T.J. SIMERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is the fifth week of the season and time for a pop quiz to determine if Chuck Knox was the right man hired three years ago to rejuvenate the Rams.

Knox's Rams shocked the football world with a 27-23 victory over the Cowboys at Dallas in 1992. The Cowboys went to the Super Bowl, the Rams went 6-10.

Last year the Rams were two-touchdown underdogs at Houston, and Knox directed his team to a 28-13 victory. Houston advanced to the playoffs; the Rams finished 5-11.

Today, a week after a 16-0 upset of the Chiefs and Joe Montana, Knox's Rams stand 2-2 and poised to make a run for respectability with a victory over the Atlanta Falcons at Anaheim Stadium.

Has Knox's rebuilding plan provided a foundation for success, or are the Rams destined to be grouped with Tampa Bay, Indianapolis and Cincinnati?

In Knox's three years, the Rams have yet to win consecutive games in the same season. One show-stopping victory per season isn't going to save the Rams.

A year ago, the Rams began the fifth week of the season 2-2 after their shining moment in Houston and were matched at home against New Orleans. They lost, 37-6, went on to lose the next four games, and after two seasons, Knox's Rams were a combined 11-21.

"We're a better football team right now than a year ago," said Chick Harris, Knox's offensive coordinator. "We're going to be a better team, too, although we're a long ways away from where we've got to be."

The Rams began this season believing they were better than NFC West rivals Atlanta and New Orleans and figured a strong second-place showing to San Francisco would be good for a wild-card playoff berth at season's end.

An opening victory over Arizona had the Rams moving forward, then a loss to Atlanta had them looking like the same old Rams and another defeat by San Francisco was hardly unexpected. The upset of Kansas City was shocking, and now?

"You can call it a make-or-break situation," defensive end Fred Stokes said. "We have a chance to go ahead of the .500 mark, and that's something with this organization we haven't seen very often."

Do the Rams turn the corner? Do they beat Atlanta, a team they are supposed to beat if they are to be considered legitimate playoff contenders? Do they have the right man in charge?

"Every game," Knox said, as if he were saying it for the first time, "is a big game."

This game had the chance of being a really big game. Safety Anthony Newman, caught up in the fever of sudden success, challenged Atlanta wide receiver Andre Rison, which generated excitement among his teammates after Rison fired back.

The locker room was abuzz, the media shifted its attention to the Rams as the Raiders took a bye and Knox put a stop to it. "That's not our style, Rams' style," he said.

Running back Jerome Bettis has rushed for more than 100 yards in the last three games, and the Rams will try once again to keep the ball away from Atlanta quarterback Jeff George. Chris Chandler is at quarterback, and like Dave Krieg who worked for Knox in Seattle, Chandler's forte is playing efficient football: avoid the sack; don't throw the interception; make the big play when afforded the opportunity.

The Ram defense, which features a strong pass rush, allows the offense to play ball control without getting into a wide-open scoring battle. The special teams, which were sensational in Seattle, now have one of the game's best special teams coaches in Wayne Sevier.

The Falcons present an immediate credibility check. Like the Rams, they have struggled in recent years. They are now being directed by June Jones, a rookie NFL head coach, and are looking to top the .500 mark for the first time since 1991. In the Falcons' last 42 games on the road, they have won eight times.

"It's only the fifth game and I don't know if this game is any more important than any other game," said Jim Erkenbeck, Ram offensive line coach.

It's only the fifth game of the year, but it's been the turning point for the Rams the last two years under Knox. After opening each of the last two seasons with a 2-2 record, Knox's Rams have gone on to a 7-17 mark.

The Rams are 2-2 once again, and Knox is on the spot.

"I'm not sure anybody in coaching ever, ever thinks that way," Erkenbeck said. "I think maybe management, reporters, etc. would. But coaches can't do that.

"Every play presents different circumstances and you just have to win more plays than you lose overall. Yes, this is an important game. Is it the end of the world if we lose? No. Is it a harbinger of bad things to come? Absolutely not."

A loss today would drop the Rams to 2-3 with a road assignment in Green Bay next week and leave the question open: Is Knox really the coach to turn around the Rams?

"It's a big game," Knox said. "There isn't any question of that."

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