The New England Patriots, who had not lost a fumble in the last six games, gave the ball to the Los Angeles Rams three times today.
Accepting the favors, and executing a successful flea flicker that had not fooled anyone, the Rams dumped the Patriots, 17-14, to send a sellout crowd of 60,609 into unholy traffic in a disgruntled state.
By winning, the Rams (7-4) remained a game behind first-place Atlanta in the NFC West. The Patriots (7-4) fell from a share of the lead to a one-game deficit behind Buffalo in the AFC East.
Trailing, 14-7, at halftime, the Rams crept within four on Frank Corral's 29-yard field goal, moved ahead before the third period ended on Elvis Peacock's one-yard plunge and hung on to win, although failing to muster a first down in five fourth-quarter possessions.
The flea flicker, which preceded Peacock's touchdown, followed a 19-yard punt to the New England 47 by Patriot Mike Hubach, who otherwise enjoyed a splendid afternoon.
On first down, quarterback Vince Ferragamo handed off to fullback Cullen Bryant, who pitched back to Ferragamo. Wide receiver Preston Dennard seemingly was well covered by Patriots Tim Fox and Rick Sanford, but he pulled the ball down between them at the New England three for a 44-yard gain. Three plays later, Peacock scored the game winner.
Early in the fourth period, an offensive pass interference penalty on halfback Mike Guman cost the Rams a big gain and forced them to punt into the wind. Corral booted it only 31 yards, to the Ram 42, and Roland James brought it back to the 21.
The Patriots, aided by a third down illegal chuck against Ram Pat Thomas, drove to the Los Angeles two. Then quarter back Steve Grogan's handoff to halfback Horace Ivory wound up on the artifical turf with Ram Reggie Doss on top of it.
The next time Corral punted, he kicked the ball just 15 yards, shanking it out of bounds on his 26. But Doss nailed Vagas Ferguson for a five-yard loss, rookie safety Johnnie Johnson jarred Stanley Morgan loose from a pass at the Ram two and John Smith came up short on a 47-yard field goal try.
On yet another New England possession, Grogan threw three straight incomplete passes from the Ram 48.
There was still hope among the freezing faithful as Hubach kicked the ball out on the Ram four with 3:14 and Ferragamo nourished it with an unwise third down pass that landed among several diving New England defenders. But Corral somehow unloaded a 58-yard punt against that 20-mph north wind and Grogan eventually ended the suspense in appropriate fashion, losing the ball as he was sacked on fourth down by tackel Mike Fanning.
With 12 seconds remaining in the first half, the Patriots used up their last timeout, in possession at the Los Angeles 27. While the crowd anticipated a Smith attempt at a field goal, Gorgan conferred with Coach Ron Erhardt and then came back out and threw a pass.
Ram LeRoy Irvin intercepted it at the 11 and ran it back 80 yards, until Grogan made a touch-down-saving tackle at the Patriot nine.
"There were 12 seconds on the clock and I figured we wouldn't need more than nine seconds to run a play," Erhardt said. "I wanted to throw one deep in the end zone and still have time to kick off. It didn't work."
When it was pointed out that the throw was nowhere near the goal line, Erhardt cited "strong pressure" on Grogan by the Rams.
The first Ram touchdown, scored by Victor Hicks on a 10-yard pass from Ferragamo, was set up by the Patriots' first fumble. Tackle Larry Brooks hooked Ferguson's arm at the Ram 45 and Jack Reynolds recovered. The Rams then covered the 55 yards in seven plays.
Grogan tied it on a 35-yard toss to Don Hasselbeck, the tight end's seventh reception and fourth touchdown. Grogan dove a yard for a 14-7 New England lead, after linebacker Steve Nelson picked off a woeful Ferragamo pass and returned it 33 yards to the Ram two.
In the end, though, the Patriots proved more generous.