The Rams ended years of frustration and disappointment tonight by using three Frank Corral field goals and an exceptional defense to carve out a winning path to the Super Bowl.
"Every year we've wanted to go so much to the Super Bowl and something has happened to stop us," guard Dennis Harrah said as his Los Angeles teammates celebrated their 9-0 triumph over Tampa Bay for the NFC championship. "But now I can finally say it. We are in the Super Bowl. You don't know how good it feels."
The Rams didn't realize their longtime ambition with a particularly memorable performance. Their offense couldn't generate a touchdown, bogging down consistently inside the Tampa Bay 20. But their veteran defense, long the heart of this successful franchise, was far too strong for the young Bucs and their erratic quarterback, Doug Williams.
Williams needed to have an impressive afternoon once Los Angeles shut down the Bucs' running game. Instead, he could complete only two of 13 passes for 12 yards before leaving midway through the third period with a torn bicep muscle in his right elbow, which he hurt on the faceguard of a Ram helmet.
His replacement, Mike Rae, wasn't any better.Rae completed two of 13 for 42 yards and had one scoring throw nullified late in the game on an illegal motion penalty. But neither player ever showed the consistency needed to thwart the Ram surge to Pasadena.
This was not supposed to be the year of the Ram. Other Los Angeles squads have had better regular seasons and have been considered stronger choices to win the NFC title. And this club has been torn by events ranging from the death of owner Caroll Rosenbloom to constant front office turmoil to an injury to quarterback Pat Haden.
But these Rams accomplished what four L.A. teams in the past five years have not been able to do -- get to the Super Bowl.
"It's justice," said running back Wendell Tyler, who gained 86 yards to help Los Angeles control the game on the ground. "We've been here so much, something right had to happen. We just were patient. Everyone might have given up on us, but we never did."
So now Los Angeles, which barely won the Western Division title with a 9-7 record, must battle the awesome Steelers for the NFL crown. Coach Ray Malavasi bravely said his team "wasn't afraid of the Steelers, we aren't afraid of anyone." But he added, "I'd like to think about this one or a minute."
He earned the right by orchestrating a game plan that turned the Buc offense into a popgun and whipped the Tampa Bay defense at its supposed strength, stopping the running game.
With Williams tossing more passes into the crowd than to his receivers, Tampa Bay didn't cross the 50-yard line until the third quarter, and it needed an option pass from halfback Jerry Eckwood to get that far.
Tampa Bay led the NFL in both total and rushing defense, but Los Angeles utilized a two tight-end offense and new blocking schemes to sweep both ends consistently and control play with its rushing game.
The Bucs had been giving up only 117 yards a game on the ground. Tonight, they surrendered 216, including 106 to powerful fullback Cullen Bryant. The offensive line guarded quarterback Vince Ferragamo so well he was sacked only once while completing 12 of 23 passes for 163 yards.
"We could run so successfully, we could do things about at will," said Ferragamo, who weathered a storm of criticism after replacing Haden to turn in two straight standout playoff performances.
It wasn't Ferragamo's fault this was the first NFC championship game in history in which neither team crossed the goal line. Los Angeles got into the end zone once on a Bryant sweep, only to have the play nullified because the Rams used an illegal formation.
In the second half, Ferragamo tossed a beautiful pass to Preston Dennard in the end zone. Dennard snatched the ball away from defender Mike Washington and back judge Pat Knight indicated touchdown, then signaled no score.
"The receiver had possession in the air and then he had one foot down," Knight explained later. "I started up with the touchdown signal. The receiver lost possession before his foot came down. Then he went out of bounds."
"We thought we could run the ball on them," Malavasi said. "There is no way a three-man front (Tampa plays a 3-4 defense) can stop a good offensive line if it blocks well. And ours did.
"I didn't think I called a conservative game. Hell, no. We scored once and I thought we scored the second time too. We moved the ball."
Three times, the Rams moved inside the Tampa 10. They had a first and goal at the four in the opening quarter, lost the Bryant touchdown and settled for a 19-yard Corral field goal. They had third and five at the eight in the second quarter, couldn't get a first down and Corral kicked a 21-yarder. They had a fourth and one at the five but decided to let Corral convert a 23-yarder in the fourth period.
Los Angeles also messed up one scoring chance when Tyler fumbled on his 18 in the first period and lost another when Corral missed a 37-yarder in the third. Tampa held on fourth down at its 24 late n the same period.
Those offensive breakdowns allowed the Bucs to stay within striking range long after they should have thinking about next season.
"Let's face it, when it gets this close, all you need are two big plays and we didn't get them," Buc Coach John McKay said.
That apparent fourth-period touchdown, on a reception by tight end Jimmie Giles with 2:37 left, might have made the last moments interesting. But guard Greg Roberts clearly moved before the snap to wipe out the score.
Otherwise, the only excitement the Bucs could generate for their enthusastic fans, who changed this beautiful stadium into an ocean of orange was that Eckwood option pass to Larry Mucker, good for 42 yards and a first down at the Rams 34 late in the third quarter.
Until then, the Bucs hadn't been able to move beyond their 45. Williams missed his first eight passes, most of them wildly thrown and high enough to elude even Wilt Chamberlain. Once the Rams sensed he was struggling, they could bunch up on Ricky Bell and shut him off on the ground.
Los Angeles also easily shut off this first legitimate Tampa threat. After Bell picked up five yards on first down, Rae, who had replaced Williams at the start of this series, failed on two long passes and the Bucs turned the ball over on downs.
In the final period, Rae completed a 25-yard pass to Isaac Hagins to get the ball to the Rams 40 and on the next series, Mucker ran 24 yards on a reverse to the 27. Both threats were crushed immediately by the Ram defense, whose veteran nucleus has endured all the past failures in this championship game.
Williams' only two completions were to running backs. A 41 percent passer entering the game, he had turned in a strong showing last week when Tampa beat Philadelphia to advance to this contest. But faced with constantly changing Ram coverage, he was unable to locate secondary receivers and threw too much on the run under constant pressure.
"You saw the Ram defense -- the way we play defense, we hustle and hit," said end Jack Youngblood, who played despite a small bone fracture in his leg.
The Rams had been stung, 21-6, by Tampa in September, when Williams tossed for two touchdowns. But Malavasi maintained all week that this was a much different Los Angeles club, healthier and with better offensive execution.
That offense particularly showed imporved over the September version. By using two tight ends, the Rams were able to double-team the Tampa Bay defensive ends and clear the path for Tyler and Bryant on sweeps. Once those areas opened up, they also were able to go up the middle, where McKay said no one could run on the Bucs.
Tampa Bay wasn't helped any by injuries to both its starting ends, Lee Roy Selmon and Wally Chambers. They were sidelined midway through the third period and their replacement were not quick enough or strong enough to contest the Ram runners.
"They were just that much stronger than us," McKay said, "but don't think Doug Williams is the reason we lost this game. Someone has to block someone. I thought he did a pretty good job of not getting sacked, but I thought the Rams did a pretty good job of covering."
The Rams now have two weeks to prepare for the Steelers, who will be heavy favorite to win another Super Bowl. Ferragamo, for one, thinks it should be otherwise.
"If our defense plays the way it did today," he said, "we can't lose the Super Bowl."