IRVING, Texas -- The Los Angeles Rams on the field froze in place, stunned perhaps by the sudden silence of the crowd or by their own pent-up sense of relief, and quietly watched the ball roll on the ground.
Seeing it, after their exasperating season, was the only way to believe it. And maybe not even then.
"I couldn't believe it," said cornerback Robert Bailey, still blinking his eyes and shaking his head. "I couldn't believe we won."
As night fell, the last minutes of this game became one last, lingering test of faith. After fighting back and forth with the Dallas Cowboys through 59 minutes and 59 seconds, the Rams finally won it when Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman's pass from the Rams 14 skidded across the middle of the end zone incomplete after time had expired.
That gave the Rams a 27-23 victory over the Cowboys before 63,690 at Texas Stadium, the Rams' first victory on the road in 13 attempts and easily the most important victory of coach Chuck Knox's second tenure with the Rams.
"What a great, great win this is for us," said quarterback Jim Everett, who rallied the Rams (4-6) to two fourth-quarter field goals by Tony Zendejas that put them ahead for good.
"I am emotionally drained," Knox said after emerging from the locker room. "Big battle. I am very proud of them."
Snapping back from his three-fumble performance during the Rams' 20-14 loss to the Phoenix Cardinals last week, tailback Cleveland Gary was the heart of the offense once again, carrying 29 times for 110 yards, catching seven passes for 44 yards and scoring touchdowns both running and receiving.
During the Rams' first possession, Gary rushed and received for a combined 53 yards, going 1 yard to give the Rams a 7-0 lead.
"We had to start fast," team captain Jackie Slater said, "and we did."
Although the Cowboys (8-2) had yielded only one first down in their opponents' last 29 third-down situations, the Rams offense was successful on 53 percent (eight of 15) of its third-down tries. As a result, the Rams were able to hold onto the ball for five more minutes than Dallas' ball-control offense.
The Rams gained 367 total yards against Dallas, 124 more than the Cowboys' defense had been giving up on average this season.
"There's no doubt Dallas is good," said Everett, who completed 22 of 37 passes for 251 yards and two touchdowns, "but I think we outplayed them today. No question."
Dallas moved consistently, especially when Aikman was throwing to Michael Irvin (eight catches, 168 yards), but the Cowboys couldn't score on their final two drives.
It was up to the Rams' pass defense to save the victory.
"We were excited to be in that position and were not going to be the scapegoats," safety Anthony Newman said. "We said in the huddle there is no way we're going to lose this one."
Gary and Everett both acknowledged that they found it difficult to watch as Aikman passed the Cowboys slowly upfield, to the Cowboys 45 with 1:22 left, to the Rams 33 with 22 seconds left, and finally, to the Rams 14-yard line with the clock stopped at six seconds.
After taking the team's final timeout, Aikman took a quick drop and passed toward the back of the end zone and Alvin Harper, who was briefly open. But Newman lunged up in the air and "cuffed it," as he described it, to the ground. He leaped up and shook his arm, thinking the game was over. But there was one second to play. The Rams huddled again.
"A lot of talking was going on, guys were screaming, 'Hey, we need this one,' " Bailey said. "Play like it's the last play of your career. That one second seemed like it took forever."
Aikman rolled left, looked uncomfortable with what he saw, then, in desperation, flung a pass nowhere near a Cowboy.
"That last play was pretty much a free-for-all," Aikman said. "I saw Kelvin open when he came across the middle, and just missed."