Los Angeles, undefeated in eight games, is a shoo-in. The Rams are rather a different team from the other three leaders, all of whom are workmanlike, efficient, tough machines. The Rams have defects that might be fatal to other clubs but, under the emotional—and inspirational—leadership of Coach George Allen, they overcome their shortcomings, often with spirit, and some of their strengths are potent enough to offset or conceal weaknesses.
The best example of this is the Ram defensive line of Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen, Roger Brown or Coy Bacon, and Diron Talbert. The original Fearsome Foursome was broken up with the loss of injured Lamar Lundy and with Bacon splitting time with Roger Brown, but the present combination is as good as or better than the original. Jones and Olsen are legitimate All-Pros, and a case could be made for either as the best at his position in pro football. Certainly they comprise the strongest side of a defensive line in the league.
Talbert and Bacon are young, strong and very quick and are almost as adept as Olsen and Jones at destroying an opposing passer. The bristling pass rush does much to relieve pressure on the Ram cornerbacks, who don't rate at the top of their profession. With a lesser line in front of them, Ron Smith and Clancy Williams would be victimized far more often than they are; indeed, on the rare occasions when the Ram front four is shut off, opposing passers pick on the corners.
The linebackers are good and react in a hurry, and the substitution of Doug Woodlief in the middle for the injured Myron Pottios adds speed to the unit and improves its performance against the pass. The Ram safeties—veterans Eddie Meador and Richie Petitbon—are both first-rate.
A revitalized running game animates the Ram offense, and here again a strength offsets a weakness. Although Billy Truax is a vastly underrated tight end, the wide receivers are only average, and the Ram passing game, despite Roman Gabriel's emergence as a topflight quarterback and passer, wouldn't strike fear in the hearts of many defensive backs if it was not coupled with a strong, versatile running attack.
For the first time in some years the Rams are blessed with several very good runners. Rookie Larry Smith, the 6'3", 220-pound sprinter who was a No. 1 draft choice from Florida, has been all the Rams hoped for. He gives them both power and a wide threat, and Les Josephson, who missed last year with an injury, has regained his 1967 form. Tommy Mason, who ran in 1968 with both legs swathed in bandages to protect his creaky knees, has taken off the wraps and is running with his old abandon and remarkable balance and agility.
As long as the pass rush and running hold up, the Rams will continue to win, and there is no reason to believe they will slack off in either department. Moreover, they are so far in front in their division that Allen can rest his veterans when need be and develop his rookies so that they will be of real help in the playoffs. It is likely that the Rams will play Minnesota for the Western Conference title, and Allen will need all he can muster to beat the Vikings on Dec. 27 in the frozen (most probably) setting of Metropolitan Stadium.
The Vikings are one of the very few teams who can match the Ram front four with four studs of their own. Their Four Norsemen are as big and as quick as the Ram line and have sacked the quarterback more often. Overall, the Vikings' secondary is probably better than the Rams', and the Minnesota linebackers may have an edge, too.
Indeed, the Vikes may be the most consistent of the four top teams, as they proved rather conclusively last Sunday, when they scored the first nine times they had the ball and didn't punt until 49 seconds were left in the game. However, the 51-3 loss was no more indicative of the true difference between the clubs than Cleveland's big win over Dallas was a guarantee that the Browns will beat the Cowboys if they meet for the Eastern Conference title in Dallas.
After a startling loss to the New York Giants in the first game of the season, the Vikings have come on with each game. Joe Kapp, their quarterback, gains in confidence and effect every week as he becomes more adept at reading defenses and more accustomed to the moves of his receivers, principally Gene Washington, who caught three touchdown passes against the Browns. It is only now—2� years after his emigration from the Canadian Football League—that Kapp gives you the feeling that he's at home in the NFL.