The Los Angeles Rams, a team considered by many people to be the choking champion of the NFL, put their necks on the line for the NFC title and a trip to the Super Bowl when they play the Dallas Cowboys at 5 p.m. Sunday (WDVMTV-9).
"I can imagine what people will say if we don't win this game," Ram quarterback Pat Haden said. "It's something nobody on this team wants to live with for another year. That's our motivation."
"I'll tell you what gets me excited," added defensive end Jack Youngblood. "The ring, the prestige, the bragging rights for a whole year. We think we're good enough to win it. Now we have to prove it."
Oddsmakers are saying the Rams will merely prove once again they can't win The Big Game. They have installed the Cowboys as four-point favorites, even though the Rams prevailed, 27-14, in a regular-season meeting here and again have the home field advantage. No one knows, though, if playing in California will be a plus. Two inches of rain fell here Friday, and there is a 50 percent chance of showers Sunday afternoon.
The Coliseum field has been covered since the rain began, but folks in these parts remember all too well the deluge of 1977, when the heavily favored Rams lost in the first game of the playoffs to the Vikings in the mud.
The Rams have advanced to the NFC title game for the fourth time in the last five years. But they have never gone any further, and owner Carroll Rosenbloom admitted the other day "I'm damned tired watching other teams play for the championship while we're home crying."
The Cowboys, of course, have been in this situation so often in the past. They have won two world championships and a victory Sunday would advance them to the Super Bowl an unprecedented fifth time.
Both head coaches said today they believe their football teams are prepared mentally and physically for what the Rams' Ray Malavasi described earlier in the week as "a game that's gonna' be as physical as anything you've ever seen."
Why was he so confident in view of the Rams' recent history of play-off disaster? he was asked.
"'Cause I'm coaching," said the man who replaced George Allen Aug. 13.
He is coaching a team that led the NFL in total defense (allowing opponents only 243 yards total offense a game), sacked enemy quarterbacks 47 times and intercepted 28 passes.
Four of those interceptions came when the Rams defeated the Cowboys in the third game of the season. Cowboy quarterback Roger Staubach was quoted that day as telling the Rams' Jack Youngblood "we'll see you chokers in the playoffs."
Staubach has not denied the slur, simply qualifying it by saying it was uttered in the heat of battle and "I have all the respect in the world for the Rams."
Thomas Henderson, the Cowboy linebacker, does not. He made no friends in these parts when he said earlier in the week the Rams did not have enough class to make it to the Super Bowl.
"That's freedom of speech," Malavasi said. "He can say what he wants to say. But players definitely react to it. Oh, they might not admit it, but they're aware of what's being said. I think it's fine. If he wants to say it, good. The thing is, he has to prove it on Sunday."
The Cowboys are hoping Staubach can prove early on that he has no ill effects from that knockout blow delivered by Falcon linebacker Robert Pennywell a week ago in Dallas' 27-20 victory over the Falcons.
Tom Landry said Staubach was "back to 100 percent" after missing the second half and showed no signs of any problems during the Cowboy practice week. That's good news for a Dallas offense ranked No. 1 in the conference, a unit that features far more speed and big-play striking power than its Los Angeles counterpart.
"Their pass rush worries me more than anything," Malavasi said of a Dallas front four that has posted a league-leading 58 sacks this season.
"If we can pass protect and give Haden time to throw, I think we can move the ball. The battle is won up front, that's where this football game will be decided."
Added Landry: "Turnovers will be the big factor. We have to move in the air without giving up interceptions."
In the teams' last meeting, Haden was sacked once and completed 14 of 25 attempts for 227 yards and two touchdowns. Seven of those completions were to Ron Jessie, one of many heroes in the Ram victory over the Vikings a week ago.
Staubach, who gave up four interceptions and was dumped three times in that first game against the Rams, says: "I was pretty bad, to tell you the truth. We all remember that game, too. They were playing very well and we were struggling at the start.
"But both teams are at their peak right now and that should make it very interesting. Their defense is just excellent. They've proved that time and again."
And the Rams also have proved they cannot win a meaningful football game.
"Sure it's a monkey on our backs," Haden said. "But I believe we've been subject to some unfair criticism. People equate success in getting to the Super Bowl, which is ludicrous in my estimation. If you don't measure up to the Cowboys you're not a success.
"It seems like there are 27 losers in the NFL and only one winner. I don't necessarily believe that. But the people who follow the game obviously don't feel that way. So we have this so-called reputation. Well, it's time to change that reputation."