Jerry Glanville is smirking as he stands on the rubble of all that's left of the old NFC West. He gloats, though, in his smallest voice, the one with the clandestine tone and the vindictive sarcasm. The NFC West, for a decade the NFL's most predictable division—the San Francisco 49ers usually on top, the Atlanta Falcons usually on the bottom, the Los Angeles Rams and the New Orleans Saints usually somewhere in between—lies in shambles. This has been a helter-skelter season for the division, so who better to preside over the chaos down the stretch than Glanville, the mad monk of helter-skelter football.
The rascal in black is back in a position to make high-visibility mischief. For the second time, Glanville has whipped a woebegone team into playoff shape in only his second year as its coach. This lime it's the Falcons. He did the same in Houston in 1987, but the Oilers play in the AFC Central, in which free-for-alls are the custom. In the stately NFC West, a circuit of mostly genteel towns, Atlanta has yet to suitably acknowledge its team's drive to its first NFL postseason berth since 1982—partly because the populace is still emotionally spent over the Braves' remarkable run to the National League pennant and partly because it is so shocked to see the Falcons in such a commanding position.
Why, on Oct. 20, in the midst of the nation's fascination with the Braves-Twins matchup in the World Series, the Saints were 7-0 and killing interest in the NFC West race, which had the 49ers, Falcons and Rams all struggling at 3-4. Three weeks later, despite having lost quarterback Bobby Hebert to a rotator cuff injury in a game against the Bears on Oct. 27, New Orleans was 9-1 and no worse off than before, because second-place Atlanta was 5-5 and coming oft a 56-17 trampling by the Washington Redskins, and once-mighty San Francisco was 4-6. But that's when everything got crazy.
The Saints offense sputtered under the guidance of backup quarterback Steve Walsh, plus their defense lost some of its fourth-quarter nerve, and New Orleans went into a four-game tailspin. Glanville's large birds in black circled overhead, scavenging four wins in a row to tie the Saints for first place at 9-5. And the Joe Montana-less 49ers, who had stumbled out of the gate under the direction of Steve Young, found their legs with third-stringer Steve Bono at quarterback and won four straight to get to 8-6.
Thus, entering last weekend, with only two games left in the regular season, Atlanta, New Orleans and San Francisco all had a chance to win the division, with the Falcons holding the tiebreaker advantage over the Saints and the 49ers. "Ain't it somethin'?" said Glanville with the relish of an anarchist at a riot. As for the plight of the Saints, Glanville sneered and said, "Every morning I wake up feeling sorry for the sonsabitches. The hell with them."
So what happened next? Last Saturday the Niners made it five consecutive victories by blasting the Kansas City Chiefs 28-14 at Candlestick Park to keep alive their long-shot hopes of restoring order in the division. On Sunday the Falcons beat the Seattle Seahawks 26-13 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium to clinch at least a wild-card spot in the playoffs. And on Monday night the Saints snapped out of their free-fall by dominating the Los Angeles Raiders 27-0 at the Superdome to grasp a wild-card spot of their own. It was the last postseason berth available in the NFC, so San Francisco was eliminated.
What's left to decide on Sunday—when Atlanta (10-5) takes on the Cowboys (10-5) in Dallas and New Orleans (10-5) plays the Cardinals (4-11) in Phoenix—is the division champion. The Saints, however, can win the NFC West only if they beat the Cardinals and the Falcons lose to the Cowboys. The winner of the division will host a wild-card team in the first round of the playoffs, on Dec. 28 or 29, while the runner-up will be on the road in a wild-card game that same weekend.
The way Glanville figures it, if anybody should have had a lock on the NFC West entering the last week of the season, it was the 49ers. And that brings us to his sneaky—if plausible—way of claiming credit for all of this chaos. "You know the difference in the whole damn division for the whole year?" said Glanville. "The 49ers didn't get their usual two wins against us. They get those two 'automatic' wins, they're in first place right now and gone down the road."
Though the Niners doubt that their season-long predicament can be explained so easily—the deeper roots, in addition to Montana's absence because of a torn elbow tendon, include injuries to two cornerbacks early on and a run of injuries along the defensive line—the 49ers admit that they have been haunted by the losses to the Falcons, their first double dip to Atlanta since 1980.
Young was terrific—two TD passes, two TD runs—in rallying the Niners on Oct. 13, but he was at the heart of their self-destruction, with two interceptions, in the final minutes of a 39-34 defeat.