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In the End, Rams Dealt One Bad Hand : Analysis: In national spotlight, Miller brings Rams as close as possible to 49ers. But not close enough to win the game.


SAN FRANCISCO — One more time, before the moving vans are summoned, the Rams were allowed to show their faces on national prime-time television Sunday night.

And on the Rams' first play from scrimmage, rickety Chris Miller hobbled back to pass, was leveled from behind, landed awkwardly on his right knee and was escorted from the field in record time, even for him--in and out of the lineup in all of five seconds.

And on the San Francisco 49ers' first two possessions, Steve Young passed for touchdowns to John Taylor and Jerry Rice.

And before halftime, it was 49ers 21, Rams 6, and a Candlestick Park scenario so apparently typical that the scoreboard operator kept the fans occupied by running video clips of the 49ers' titanic triumph over Dallas seven days earlier.

Same old Rams, right?

ESPN should have known better.

See you in St. Louis.

Except this time, Miller took a detour from the X-ray room and re-entered the game just before the end of the first quarter. A hush fell over foggy Candlestick, because this simply doesn't happen. Lazarus might climb back up, Willis Reed might limp back in there, but when Chris Miller goes down, Chris Miller stays down.

Chris Chandler, the Rams' harried reserve quarterback, can vouch for this.

So this was strange, but stranger still, Miller pitched a ball to Todd Kinchen on a reverse and Kinchen weaved his way 44 yards through the San Francisco secondary into the end zone.

Then Miller threw a pass to Flipper Anderson, who had drawn the coverage of Deion Sanders this evening, and the pass sailed over Sanders' head and into Anderson's arms for a 50-yard scoring play.

Then Miller scrambled to his left, knees groaning and creaking out of the pocket, drawing 49er cornerback Eric Davis in, and lobbed the ball to a wide-open Jessie Hester for a 22-yard touchdown.

Finally, in Week 12, this is what the Rams had spent those $9 million on.

And with 48 seconds to play and the Rams down by four, Miller was on the money again--his 50-yard spiral hitting Anderson in stride, in the hands, in the end zone.

Miller held his breath . . . and watched a third hand--Sanders'--reach in and slap the ball away, over the end line and out of play.

Moments later, it was over.

49ers 31, Rams 27.

49ers 9-2, Rams 4-7.

For the Rams, in their present-day, sub-.500, pre-U-Haul condition, this is as good as it gets. In San Francisco, on national television, with the winning touchdown pass headed in the right direction.

And Sanders, the kind of All-Pro free agent the Rams tend to idly watch sign with a division rival, flicks it all away with one sweep of the wrist.

"That's what separates a team from being in the playoff hunt and being 4-7 and playing for pride and all that. . . ." Miller said disgustedly as he slouched in a chair.

"Great teams make those plays. Great teams like the 49ers and Dallas know how to win close games. We just keep coming up short."

Miller sat there, legs apart, ice bags strapped to both knees. Miller began to talk about the play that knocked him out of the game--"He fell on the outside of my knee and it just folded"--when someone interrupted, "Which knee?"

The question had to be asked.

Miller tapped his right ice bag.

One play and Wounded Knee Miller was out of there. On the Ram bench, he could almost hear the belly laughs in living rooms from here to Atlanta.

He had to get back in there, he decided.

"This was a prime-time TV game," Miller said. "I had a lot on the line. My personal pride was at stake."

Third-stringer Tommy Maddox, the last able-bodied hand available, got in one series, drove the Rams to a field goal, but all that meant was a 14-3 deficit instead of 14-0. So Miller told the trainer to tape it tight, spit on it, whatever, and trudged back in.

For the next three quarters, he matched Young spiral for spiral, turning this Ram-49er match from the customary '90s blowout into the kind of pulsating free-for-all that once, believe it or not, made this a great NFL rivalry.

Miller winced as he discussed the pass that almost pulled it out.

"It eats at you," he said. "Damn right, it eats at you. That wasn't our whole season out there, but it was a big part of it.

"We're that close to being a good team."

That, for these Rams, is as good as it gets.

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