Not to take anything away from the Redskins, but here is what it was like: It was as if somebody had breezed into the Los Angeles Rams' locker room on Sunday, before their wild-card playoff game in Washington, and said, "Just lose, baby." End of speech.
Four fumbles, two interceptions, a 254-second instant replay and 78 yards in penalties later, the Rams had done just that, the margin of the Skins' 19-7 victory coming off the foot of an ex-loan officer trainee who only three weeks earlier had been processing mortgage applications.
"The Rams did help us some," admitted Redskins middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz, who led a defense that gave up a shocking 198 yards rushing, "and we appreciate it. But they say it's the good teams that get lucky."
The Skins were both good and lucky on Sunday—good enough to capitalize on the Rams' self-destructive tendencies, and lucky that on a day when their longest gain from scrimmage was a piddling 15 yards, they always seemed to be getting the ball near midfield because the Rams were playing Santa with it. "We beat ourselves," said the Rams' Eric Dickerson, who ran for 158 yards on 26 carries but fumbled three times. "We could have won this game, but we turned the ball over. I turned the ball over."
It was a matchup between two teams entering the playoffs on the skids. The Skins had dropped two of their last three games and needed 21 fourth-quarter points in the season finale to squeak past Philadelphia. Jay Schroeder, their young, strong-armed quarterback, who this year became the first Redskin ever to pass for more than 4,000 yards in a season, suddenly appeared to be mistake-prone. After throwing just 11 interceptions in his first 13 games, Schroeder added 11 more in those final three contests. And the Redskins' place-kicking game was a shambles. Mark Moseley and then Max Zendejas had put the suspense back into the extra point, combining to miss seven on the year, which forced Washington to bring in Jess Atkinson for the regular season's final game. The 25-year-old Atkinson did have eight games of NFL experience with the Giants and Cardinals in 1985, but in a year and a half he had been cut by four different teams, including the Redskins, who had last looked at him in training camp. When the Skins called him back, Atkinson was earning $1,500 a month from the Shawmut Mortgage Corporation of Annapolis and kicking twice a week on the University of Maryland campus with his girlfriend, Jamie Henry, holding for him. "She's quite a holder and knows more about kicking than just about any coach I've ever met," Atkinson said after his four-for-four field goal effort Sunday. "I was just mushing along from day to day, praying I'd get another chance."
The Rams had been doing a little mushing of their own. After seeming to have locked up the Western Division title, they had lost four of their last seven games, including the last two, to finish half a game behind the 49ers.
"Too finesseful," is how Dickerson described the Rams' style of play in the last half of the season.
"We've got to go back to basics," said coach John Robinson. "The key thing tomorrow is to stay within the script."
Everyone knew what that meant. "Everything we heard coming out of Los Angeles all week was run, run, run," said Olkewicz. "We thought they were going to come out running it down our throats."
Which is exactly what the Rams did all day—Dickerson left, Dickerson right, Barry Redden up the middle. And they stuck with the script, even when they fell behind early.