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eXcess and O's

L.A. Nightmares Frozen in Time

October 13, 2002|MIKE PENNER

What does the following combination of words mean to you?

Long-underachieving local team.

Playoffs.

Minnesota.

If you're under 35: "Cool. Got an extra ticket to today's Angel game?"

If you're over 35: Unprintable blood-curdling scream as you go sprinting from the room and friends hold you back as you try to hurl yourself through the upstairs plate-glass window.

Long before Twins-at-Angels was a novel way to spend an October weekend in 2002, Vikings-versus-Rams was a wretched way to ruin Christmas holidays if you grew up in the Los Angeles area and rooted for the home NFL team in the late '60s and '70s.

Including a 1988 wild-card game at the Metrodome, the Los Angeles Rams played the Minnesota Vikings six times in the playoffs, going 1-5, which pretty much explains why Chuck Knox never made it to the Super Bowl.

The Rams' lone playoff victory over Minnesota, at home in 1978, merely delayed the agony another week, when they lost the NFC title game, at home, to the Dallas Cowboys, 28-0.

The Angels would do well to study this dire stretch of Los Angeles football history closely, because the hard lessons learned by the Rams then could prove very useful today.

Watch out for knuckleballs: Joe Kapp never threw a spiral in his entire NFL career, but his wobblers and end-over-enders rally the Vikings from a 17-7 halftime deficit in 1969 to a 23-20 victory over the Rams, who began the season 11-0 and never won again. Team that broke the winning streak in November? The Vikings.

Remember, it's a game of inches: Down, 7-3, in the third quarter of the 1974 NFC final in Minnesota, the Rams drive 98 yards and are six inches away from taking the lead ... when guard Tom Mack is mysteriously flagged for illegal motion. Moved back five yards, Ram quarterback James Harris throws an interception in the end zone on the next play. Mack was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999, still convinced he never moved on the controversial play. The '74 Vikings went on to beat the Rams, 14-10, and lose Super Bowl IX.

Be adaptable: Angel Manager Mike Scioscia has learned there are times to bring in closer Troy Percival earlier than the ninth inning. Knox, however, was fatefully stubborn in adhering to the conservative strategy that got him to his third consecutive NFC final in 1976. So on fourth and goal inside the Minnesota one-yard line in the first quarter, Knox sends on the field-goal unit. The Vikings block the kick, Bobby Bryant scoops up the ball and returns it 90 yards for a touchdown, sparking a 24-13 Minnesota victory.

Home-field advantage can be overrated: The 1977 Rams figure they are due as they finally get to play host to the Vikings in a playoff game. Of course, Minnesota weather follows the Vikings west and a Southern California rainstorm turns the Coliseum field into a quagmire. Ram quarterback Pat Haden has trouble gripping the slippery football and throws three interceptions. Vikings win, 14-7.

Beware the Metrodome: Already the Angels have won a playoff game inside the Metrodome, which is more than the Rams can say. The Rams ventured back to Minnesota in 1988, long after Kapp and Fran Tarkenton and Chuck Foreman had retired. The ghosts, however, never vacate. Jim Everett goes 19 for 45 and throws three interceptions. Vikings win, 28-17.

Six years after that, the Rams were gone, headed for St. Louis. Which explains why there is so much local hope and interest surrounding this playoff against Minnesota. It's an October Sunday in the Southland. The Twins and the Angels have the place all to themselves.

Chasing History

Speaking of the Rams, who are 0-5 this season and down to third-stringer Marc Bulger as their starting quarterback against 4-0 Oakland today: This could be a team for the ages.

Excluding the strike season of 1987, the Rams are the first team to go from the Super Bowl one season to 0-5 the next. If 0-6 happens, as is widely expected, the Rams will have to finish 5-5 to avoid the worst post-Super Bowl season in league history.

Record holders: the 1999 Atlanta Falcons and 1990 Denver Broncos, who each went 5-11 a season after reaching the Super Bowl.

In the pre-Super Bowl era, the New York Giants went from the NFL championship game in 1963 to 2-10-2 in 1964.

Realignment Realignment

How the NFL's new-look divisions rank at the season's first-quarter mark:

1. AFC West: Four playoff-caliber teams dueling for one fewer wild-card spot than in previous seasons. The Raiders are the league's last unbeaten team, the Chargers and the Broncos are 4-1 and the Chiefs, with the NFL's leading rusher, Priest Holmes, and the second-highest scoring offense, are in last place at 3-2.

2. AFC East: The Patriots are defending the title, the Dolphins have a rushing game and Drew Bledsoe is playing like an MVP contender with the Bills. The Jets don't know what hit them.

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