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NFC WEST division

Never mind all that Smack-'Em-in-the-mouth stuff-the traditional clichè for toughness-you hear around the league. The Los Angeles Rams are the toughest team in the NFL, and I'll tell you why. It's the final game of the '89 season, the Rams need a win in New England, where the windchill factor made it feel like 0°, to make the playoffs. They get it with an 80-yard drive and a touchdown with 1:55 left. The Rams are banged up and counting bodies when they go to Philadelphia for the wild-card game the next week. So they shut out the Eagles for three quarters and win 21-7. Then they travel to Giants Stadium for the divisional playoff and beat New York in overtime—you remember, Flipper Anderson catches the game-winner and runs through the end zone and into the tunnel to the locker room. This was a team that wasn't supposed to be able to play in cold weather, right?

That's what I call tough. O.K., so the injuries and weariness caught up with them in the NFC Championship Game the next week, and the 49ers ran them out of Candlestick Park. The Niners were the hottest team in football during the 1989 postseason, maybe the hottest team ever. But here's the thing about the Rams. They know how to play San Francisco. They split with the 49ers in each of the last two regular seasons, and now their turn has come. You can tell by the look in their eyes.

They don't have San Francisco's personnel or offensive firepower, but I just get the feeling that they're 1990's team of destiny, the hungry team. So I'm making them my NFC Super Bowl pick, and awarding them a 24-17 victory over the Chiefs in the big one.

Everything is in place, offensively: Jim Everett throwing to Anderson, Henry Ellard, Pete Holohan and Robert Delpino; a line that ranks with Cincinnati's as the league's best and is now fortified by a 300-pound rookie center, Bern Brostek; and a running attack...well, L.A. always has a running attack, never mind who's carrying the ball. Could be Plan B pickup Curt Warner, Cleveland Gary or even Gaston Green—pick one.

Defensively, there were problems, like finishing 28th in the NFL in passing yards allowed last year, a misleading stat because a lot of that was gimme yardage at the end of games. Defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur believes the answer is to step up the intensity of the pass rush, even if that means getting reckless at times. Which translates to less reading responsibility for the people up front, more blow-and-go. Sack maniac Kevin Greene, a holdout, will get pass-rush support from an emerging star, George Bethune, a 250-pounder with a real burst. All the signs are there.

Something about that "threepeat" slogan gets to me. I don't like silly slogans, like the one the Steelers had: "One for the thumb in '81." Doesn't even rhyme. O.K., I hear you, give us the real reason you don't think the SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS will repeat as champs. How's this: During preseason camp, members of the press were told that no one on the sidelines could sit down. I was absolutely forbidden to light my cigar, and this was outdoors! I'm not kidding. They're telling the world how to live.

Plan B is their personal farm system. Eddie DeBartolo's pockets are bottomless. Bring in all the players you want—noseguard Fred Smerlas, cornerback Hanford Dixon (who wasn't going to make the team and wound up retiring)—pay them whatever it takes. The offensive coordinator, Mike Holmgren, wants to be a head coach somewhere else? Hey, pay him enough so he'll stay. The 49ers are the NFL's rich kids on the block, and oh yes, they've got players.

Joe Montana is being called the best quarterback ever. Jerry Rice is pretty close to the top of the best receiver list. Remember that touchdown catch he made against Denver in the Super Bowl, bouncing off Steve Atwater's big hit and putting a move on another guy, all in the same motion? John Taylor is another fine wideout. Mike Sherrard, once the franchise wide receiver in Dallas, is making his move. Running back Roger Craig and fullback Tom Rathman are equally adept at running and pass catching. There is one tight end (Brent Jones) for receiving, another (Jamie Williams) for blocking. It's a dazzling array of talent.

So the offensive line was a little cockamamy in training camp, with people switching positions and Harris Barton going to center just as he was beginning to emerge as a Pro Bowl-caliber tackle. The line will sort itself out. Nothing is really wrong with the defense, either, featuring Ronnie Lott as the policeman in the deep secondary and an underrated pair of ends, Pierce Holt and Kevin Fagan.

There's nothing really wrong, anywhere, and the Niners will be right in it. But they're fat now. They're the Romans, staring out from the Palatine Hill at the hordes of wild, hungry, warlike people clad in animal skins. This year I'm picking the barbarians.

Quick now, name the team that ranks second behind San Francisco in victories over the last three years. You're right, the NEW ORLEANS SAINTS. And they've got one playoff appearance—a quick exit via a blowout in 1988—to show for all those W's. So what's wrong? In '88 the Saints were coasting until they lost three of their last four games. Last year they were going nowhere. Bobby Hebert had thrown nine interceptions in his last five games, ending with a Dec. 3 loss to the Lions. He was benched for John Fourcade, who once toiled in the nets and the pits of Arena-ball, and New Orleans won its final three games to end up 9-7.

A sound team, better than average, with a still unproven quarterback: that's the Saints. Four teams came from behind in the fourth quarter or in overtime to beat them last season. New Orleans is missing something, a fiber of toughness, staying power at the end, who knows?

The Saints have eyecatching people all right—Dalton Hilliard, the flashy little halfback, pass-rush linebackers Pat Swilling and Rickey Jackson—but they have weaknesses, too. The defensive line has lost Jumpy Geathers (Plan B) and Frankie Warren (drug suspension), so in the first round New Orleans drafted a defensive end, Renaldo Turnbull, who has some swiftness but looks lost against the run.

The schedule is interesting, tough at the beginning when the Saints open with San Francisco and Minnesota, so-so in the middle and then loaded at the end with the Rams on the road, Steelers at home, 49ers on the road and Rams at home. A fast start could make those late-season games exciting. But another bout with the blahs could get all that "what's wrong?" talk started again.

The Saints' fiscal policy remains prudent. They've lost 18 people to Plan B over the last two years. If Hebert is traded, which he wants, then they will have no one in the high-echelon salary bracket. And oh, yes, this is New Orleans' third straight year of ticket-price increases, which angered many fans.

Once I asked Bill Walsh which defensive coach had given him the most trouble in all his years with the 49ers. I thought he would say Buddy Ryan, but he surprised me. "Jerry Glanville," said Walsh. "He always seemed to have the best read on what we were doing."

You can bet that the ATLANTA FALCONS' defense, which ranked dead last in the NFL in '89, will be better, even if Glanville has to restore that old Gritz Blitz he used as a Falcon defensive coach 11 years ago. Glanville, who had coached the last four seasons in Houston, came into a weird situation in Atlanta. The head coach resigned after the 12th game of last season. The interim coach was arrested six weeks later on a DUI charge. Two players died in separate traffic accidents. The club president, Rankin Smith Jr., the owner's son, was hit with a paternity suit and later resigned. Two paternity suits were filed against linebacker Aundray Bruce (page 120), who was later charged after allegedly pointing a BB gun at a pizza deliveryman.

Glanville, who keeps reiterating in his book, Elvis Don't Like Football, "I like living on the edge," might have more than he bargained for here.

Three newcomers could give the team a lift: tackle Chris Hinton and wideout Andre Rison, who both came from Indianapolis in the Jeff George deal, and first-round draft pick Steve Broussard, a 5'6½", 202-pound halfback with flash and dash.

Atlanta faces the entire AFC Central this season; you know, all of Glanville's old buddies—Chuck Noll, Sam Wyche, that bunch. The opener, at home, is against the Oilers. It'll be a lively season, if nothing else.




Atlanta's rushing attack begins with John Settle.