If you haven't noticed, there's an arms (and legs) race going on in the National Football Conference's Western Division, and it has neatly separated the powers that be--the Rams and San Francisco 49ers--from the powers that won't be--the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints.
It's a race fueled by a rivalry of cities ("It's San Francisco, not 'Frisco,' you L.A. smog-heads!"), coaches (smug Bill Walsh vs. jolly John Robinson), and players (Joe Montana once called LeRoy Irvin a "big-eared . . .").
It also doesn't hurt that the final regular-season game between the teams usually decides the divisional title.
Two years ago, it was the Rams winning at Candlestick Park (27-20) to steal the NFC West from the defending Super Bowl champions. Last year, it was the 49ers returning the favor with a 24-14 win over the Rams.
And it figures to come down to that again this season, when the Rams and 49ers meet Dec. 27 at Candlestick Park.
In fact, since 1970, when the divisions were realigned, the only non-California team to win the NFC West was the Atlanta Falcons of 1980, led by quarterback Steve Bartkowski. (Both the Rams and 49ers had losing records in the strike year, 1982, but a divisional format wasn't used to determine playoff teams.)
So, yes, this is a division in which it's important to keep up with the Walshes and the Robinsons, two coaches who always keep one eye fixed on the other.
When one team makes a move, the other counters.
Move: The Rams hire San Diego offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese in an effort to shake up their woeful pass offense.
Counter move: The 49ers trade for quarterback Steve Young, who's ready to step in for the great but injury-prone Joe Montana.
Move: The Rams, in training camp, want to sign receiver Tony Hill, released by the Dallas Cowboys.
Counter move: The 49ers offer Hill more money and sign him instead.
It's that kind of competition that keeps a rivalry burning.
So who's going to win? Well, it's hard not to pick the 49ers right now simply because they are the defending champions and they had a better off-season than the Rams. Not only did the 49ers get Young, but they drafted three promising players in the first two rounds: offensive linemen Jeff Bregel and Harris Barton and running back Terrence Flagler.
The Rams did not have a first pick. It went to Houston in the Jim Everett deal. Their second-round choice, defensive end Donald Evans, apparently won't be of much help, at least early in the season.
Third-round choice Clifford Hicks looked promising at cornerback, but a shoulder injury knocked him way off schedule.
It'll be up to Zampese and Everett to pick up the slack. It can be done, but it won't be easy.
Here's a closer look at the division in predicted order of finish.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ers
1986 record: 10-5-1
Coach--Bill Walsh (ninth season).
Key acquisitions--Quarterback Steve Young, receiver Tony Hill, offensive linemen Harris Barton and Jeff Bregel and running back Terrence Flagler.
Outlook--If you're the superstitious sort, please note that Walsh has won Super Bowls in three-year intervals, first in 1981 and then in 1984. Well, it's 1987. Actually, there isn't much luck involved in Walsh's success. He tends to move and move quickly. Montana, who missed 55 days of the 1986 season after sensitive back surgery, returned to the lineup just in time to receive a concussion in a humiliating 49-3 playoff loss to the New York Giants.
The ringing in Montana's ears forced Walsh to do something about an obviously aging offensive line. So he used his first first-round choice (he had two) on tackle Barton from North Carolina, a big man (6-3, 280) who might step right into a starting position. On the second-round, Walsh took USC's guard Bregel, another possible impact player.
The other first-round pick was used on Clemson's Flagler, a breakaway back who will be expected to take some of the heat off tailback Roger Craig.
Walsh wants Montana to regain the 10 pounds he lost after back surgery. And though it's clear that Montana is still the main man in San Francisco, Young is no slouch off the bench.
The former Brigham Young and Los Angeles Express star was out of place in Tampa Bay, where former Coach Leeman Bennett tried to make the scrambling Young a drop-back passer.
Young seems perfectly suited to Walsh's roving quarterback system, and there is suspicion that Montana's health, or lack thereof, will force Young into the lineup much sooner than later.
Last year's surprises on defense were the two rookie cornerbacks, Tim McKyer and Don Griffin. Another rookie, defensive end Charles Haley, led the team with 12 sacks. Safety Ronnie Lott (10 interceptions) is, well, Ronnie Lott.
1986 record: 10-6
Coach--John Robinson (fifth season).
Key acquisitions--Ernie Zampese, formerly offensive coordinator with the San Diego Chargers. Running back Buford McGee, acquired in trade from Chargers for Barry Redden.