SI Vault
NFC West
Ron Reid
September 03, 1979
The competition has improved considerably, but LOS ANGELES should prevail for the seventh year in succession. More speed and a retooled offense promise to make the Rams more exciting, but unless scholarly Pat Haden earns an A-plus at quarterback, the thrills will be gone before the Super Bowl.
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September 03, 1979

Nfc West

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One of New Orleans' major strengths is its receiver corps—deep threats Wes Chandler, Ike Harris and Tinker Owens, who among them accounted for 115 receptions, and Henry Childs, who led the NFC's tight ends with 53 receptions. Manning's favorite target, though, is Galbreath, who caught 74 passes in '78.

On defense, the Saints improved from 27th in the NFL to 15th in their first season under Nolan, who installed the Flex. In the first six games of 1978, New Orleans gave up an average of 24 points; in the last 10, the Saints yielded only 15 a game.

One player who should have a big impact on the Saints' record is Russell Erxleben, the No. 1 draft choice from Texas, who is probably the best all-round kicker to enter the NFL since Ray Guy. Erxleben's punts seem to hang forever, and his ability to kick the long field goal—in college he booted 11 of 50 yards or more—will give New Orleans a chance to win the kind of cliffhanger it usually lost last season.

The ATLANTA Falcons were the Cardiac Kids of 1978, gaining six of their nine wins in the last two minutes—and four in the final 10 seconds. For a team which had been a consistent loser since entering the league in 1966, the experience was heartening.

The same cannot be said of the Falcons' prospects for '79. Neither the draft choices nor the players obtained in trades have alleviated the shortcomings of last season, chief among them being the lack of a topflight running back. Coach Leeman Bennett hoped a draftee would fill that need, but all the can't-miss prospects were gone by the time that the Falcons picked.

To upgrade a rushing attack that was only one notch above the NFL's worst, Bennett is wistfully counting on improvement from a number of veterans, especially Bubba Bean. Bennett also needs a stronger and more consistent performance from his offensive line, which gave up a league-leading 56 sacks in '78. USC's Pat Howell, a rookie who once finished second in a screen test for the title role in the TV show The Incredible Hulk, has been impressive at guard and may start.

At quarterback, Steve Bartkowski can be as good as any in the division, but injuries, particularly to his right knee, have limited him to appearances in just 38 of a possible 58 games during his four-year career. "I look around now," he says, "and I see only one other guy on offense who has more years here than I do, so it's time for me to take a leadership role, to be the guy who makes things happen."

Another trouble spot for Atlanta's offense is wide receiver, where Alfred Jenkins is the only deep threat. Sidelined all of last season with a broken collarbone, Jenkins cracked it again in a May mini-camp and is still recovering. All in all, considering the Falcons' shortcomings on offense, their main scoring threat may continue to be Tim Mazzetti, the kicking bartender who joined the club as a free agent after six games and provided the margin of victory in six games.

Atlanta's long suit is its defense. Nicknamed "The Grits Blitz," the Front Seven, led by Linebacker Greg Brezina, had 47 sacks in 1978 and could be even better now with the addition of No. 1 draftee Don Smith, a 6'5", 248-pound defensive end from Miami. But a likely liability is an aging secondary, which must play man-to-man more often than any other NFL unit to compensate for the blitzing linebackers.

"We've got to be very careful," Bennett says. "For two years we've had some moderate success compared to what had been here in the past. The tendency is to slack off a little bit, or say, 'Well, we're good enough now to go ahead and win without working too hard,' and we're not there yet."

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