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PRO FOOTBALL : The Saints Are Marching In as Favorites : Rams and Rest of NFC West Finding That New Orleans Could Just Be for Real

November 08, 1987|CHRIS DUFRESNE | Times Staff Writer

When, in heaven's name, have the New Orleans Saints ever been like this? Winning, that is. And a favorite coming into Anaheim Stadium to play the Rams, no less.

Something is wrong here, and Saint Coach Jim Mora can sense it. Defensive? The Saints defensive?

"I don't even like to talk playoffs," Mora said. "You're talking about a team that hasn't even had a winning season in 21 years, let alone the playoffs. Geez."

Meet the team that's almost afraid to admit it might actually be, well, it's a four-letter word meaning something between mediocre and great. Good? Good, but don't say it too loud.

"We're 4-3 and you're asking about the playoffs?" Mora said. "It kind of blows my mind."

Remember, the Saints have been called four-letter words before. Mora wants you to remember that. He wants you to recall the suffering, the bad times, the bags on heads, the promises.

And the Rams, after all, will always be the Rams. History is history. They lead the series, 24-11. They've swept the season series from the Saints 7 times in 21 years.

In that time, the Rams have outscored the Saints, 832-602. And have you seen Archie Manning's back X-rays lately? It seems as though Jack Youngblood is still chasing him, and catching him and hurting him.

How did it all change so quickly? Mora wants to know. How did the Rams go from Super Bowl contenders to underdogs against his team?

"We're a better (improved) football team," Mora finally admitted at gunpoint. "I don't know how much. But you throw out the strike, and we're 2-2."

Mora knows it looks bad, with his team coming off a 38-0 victory over Atlanta and the Rams in a world of hurt at 1-6, having just traded away most of the franchise, Eric Dickerson, and having suspended another corner of it, LeRoy Irvin.

"But it's a very talented football team,' Mora said. "They went to the playoffs four straight years. They've had some tough breaks. I'm sure the strike didn't help them, either. But the team can beat anybody they play."

But, what of the game plan without Dickerson? You should be able to do it with your eyes closed.

"I'm not sorry to see him go," Mora said. "I'll tell you there were three other coaches that went out and had a bottle of champagne when he left."

NFC West coaches Mora, Bill Walsh of San Francisco and Marion Campbell of Atlanta, of course.

So it is different, perhaps easier, to play the Rams these days?

"But Dickerson didn't run for 1,800 yards unless someone blocked," Mora shot back. "Three guys (offensive linemen) went to the Pro Bowl."

Mora, though, surely had to warn his team of the dangers of overconfidence, just to be safe.

"I didn't have to," he said. "Our players are very familiar with the Ram players. I don't believe the fact they've done well the last few years is totally Eric Dickerson. . . . They know they're playing the L.A. Rams."

With the teams so even, one can only turn to a common opponent, the San Francisco 49ers. Two weeks ago, the Saints lost a heart-breaker to the 49ers when Morten Andersen missed a 52-yard field goal at game's end.

Some have suggested that had the Saints even attempted to move into better field-goal range in the last minute, the game might have been theirs.

A week later at Anaheim, the 49ers took a quick 24-3 lead over the Rams and won 31-10.

Of course, common opponents don't mean everything.

In some ways, the Saints are everything the Rams used to be: a good running team and tough against the run on defense.

Coach John Robinson has compared the Saints to his first Ram team in 1983.

"They have that same type of look," he said. "They have a good quarterback (Bobby Hebert), not a great one."

And a pretty good runner in second-year man Rueben Mayes, a tailback the Saints use the way the Rams used Dickerson.

Used is the operative word here, as Robinson's team tries desperately to regroup.

"This is the first week, really, without some dramatic diversion," said Robinson, passing over Irvin's suspension as if it was as easy as a 12th-round player cut. "But we're reshaping ourselves, no question."

And so, too, are the Saints, who are perhaps headed for a newer, slimmer, playoff look.

Just don't let it get around.

Ram Notes Duval Love will replace the injured Dennis Harrah (back) at right guard today. . . . Coach John Robinson said he plans to use new tailback Greg Bell for about half the game. "He's got some stuff," Robinson said. . . . The Saints are looking for only their second series sweep of the Rams since the teams started playing twice a year in 1970. The first was in 1981. . . . Last week's shutout of the Atlanta Falcons was only the sixth in Saints' history. . . . In the last eight games between the teams, Eric Dickerson had averaged 106.6 yards a game. The Rams won six of them. . . . Remember John Fourcade, the Saints' strike quarterback who threw for three touchdowns in a 37-10 victory over the Rams Oct. 4? Well, Fourcade has earned a spot as the team's third quarterback, although he has been deactivated for today's game.

Some strike-marred numbers that are nevertheless revealing: The Rams rank 23rd in total offense and 22nd in defense. . . . Speaking of strike-tainted statistics, Charles White still leads the NFC in rushing with 436 yards in 109 carries. . . . Saint quarterback Bobby Hebert on suspended Ram cornerback LeRoy Irvin: "He's definitely one of the four or five top corners in the NFL. I don't know about his problems or contract, but he can definitely help somebody. I've watched him on film. He reminds me of the (Washington) Redskins' Darrell Green."

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