The scenes played on opposite sidelines in the final three minutes -- scenes that expressed both the tone of the National Conference title game today and the emotions of the teams.

Am instant after Billy Joe DuPree caught the touchdown pass that lifted Dallas to a 21-0 lead, Thomas Henderson, the mouth that soared, somehow produced a Ram pompon and began what had become a ritual. Only the tense changed.

"They choked," he yelled, prancing 15 yards up and down the sideline, taunting Ram fans with the pompon. "I knew they'd choke. I kenw it."

A minute or so later, just before Henderson returned an interception 68 yards for the final touchdown, Ram Jack Youngblood spied a friend in the stands. With silent eloquence, Youngblood simply shrugged his shoulders.

It had happened again for the Rams, defeat in another important game, the galling memory of having to admit Henderson was at least partially right. Dallas has a fine team, but there seems to be a Ram Law at work in these games: whatever can go wrong will.

"It's there for the Rams," said Tom Mack, their veteran offensive guard who may well retire soon."It's just a question of when. Today we controlled them in the first half; that's the bitterest pill to swallow."

In what seems a never-ending series of frustrations, a Ram team that rarely beats itself managed to throw the ball to Dallas Cowboys at all the wrong times. Thin at running back already, they lost their best runner, John Cappelletti, before the second quarter.

They would lose their quarterback, Pat Haden, before the third quarter ended. But two minutes before that they lost the game, when a seldom-seen runner named Jim Jodat was given the ball on fourth and inches from the Dallas 13.

The Cowboys were ahead, 7-0, and the Rams had seemed incapable of reaching the end zone of an empty field. But a 23-yard punt offered one more chance -- and reserve Jodat got the important call.

"I ran to what I saw," he said. "What did I see? Not much."

Every other Ram insisted there was daylight, that if Jodat had jutted outside the major blocker, left tackle Doug France, instead of inside, the first down would have been no problem.

"All he has to do is follow me," France said. "If I take my man inside, he goes outside. If I take my man ourside, he cuts inside. I took my man inside."

While the Cowboys crowed nearby, the Rams literally licked their wounds. Their speed backs, Wendell Tyler and Elvis Peacock, had suffered season-ending injuries long ago and their leading rusher, Lawrence McCutcheon, met the same fate at midcampaign.

Now Cappelletti was walking about with a separated right shoulder and Haden, whose interceptions had gift-wrapped the first two Cowboy touchdowns, had his right arm in a sling and his broken right thumb in a splint.

Both Rams had been eliminated by the same Cowboy -- Randy White, known within the team as Manster, "half man, half monster," as Charlie Waters put it.

"I hit it (the thumb) on his helmet during the follow-through (of Waters' second interception)," Haden said. "I could see it was broken when I looked at it (as he hit the ground)."

For Haden, the analysis was painfully simple -- too many interceptions, three in all, and lost fumbles. This was a day the Cowboys could not have beaten the Chargers, let alone their foe-to-be in Super Bowl 13, the Steelers. But the Ram offense was a noshow, partly because of injuries, partly because... well, perhaps because this sort of thing is almost expected every late December or early January.

"You can't play a whole helluva lot of defense and expect to win," defensive end Fred Dryer said, defensively.

But fate had been kind to the Rams early in the game, when Scott Laidlaw had fumbled a yard from the end zone and three Cowboys bobbled it before Youngblood recovered it for a touchback.

"Tony (Dorsett) knocked me off the ball," said left tackle Pat Donovan, who had his touchdown act planned as he saw the ball spinning in front of him. "What I was going to do was run it in. I know the ball already was in the yellow (end zone), but I was going to run it in anyway.

"I've got to teach young Tony a thing or two."

Ram owner Carroll Rosenbloom might well ask Coach Ray Malavasi why he chose Jodat for such a significant play when he did have one healthy, experienced runner available, Cullem Bryant.

The Ram Law at work again?

Whatever, the worst memory for the Rams is Hollywood Henderson, with that bearded scowl of his, standing in the end zone, looking toward them with his hands wrapped around his throat in the classic choke sign.

That was before the game.