William Andrews calls them "the Protectors," and to show his appreciation toward his offensive line for all the yards they've helped him gain, all the bruises they've helped him avoid, he recently took them out for a steak dinner and presented each with a personalized piece of luggage.

Tuesday, Andrews and his Atlanta Falcon running mate, Lynn Cain, also will take the Protectors to a local seafood house. "All they can eat, whatever they want, and we're paying," said Andrews, the Falcon running back who gained 1,308 yards this season. "We'll do it win or lose. But nobody on this team is thinking 'lose' right now."

The oddsmakers think the NFC West champion Falcons (12-4) are a three-point choice to defeat the wild-card Dallas Cowboys (12-4) Sunday at 4 p.m. (WDVM-TV-9) and advance to the NFC championship game the following week.

The Protectors Andrews will gorge Tuesday night are a major reason why. Tackles Mike Kenn and Warren Bryant, guards Dave Scott and R.C. Thielemann and center Jeff Van Note may be household names in their own households, but hardly anywhere else. Still, Coach Leeman Bennett, a low-key fellow for the most part, fairly bubbles over his blockers. "Our success story begins with these guys," he said. "They're the reason our offense has been so effective."

Quarterback Steve Bartkowski is equally effusive. "They've kept people off me all year," he said. "They've allowed me to play the quarterback position the way it's supposed to be played. I actually have time to read coverages now, to go to a second and a third receiver if I have to. As a result, we've been able to do almost anything we want on offense."

Added Andrews: "The holes are just unreal. Sometimes they're so big your eyes pop out."

The same could not be said for the Falcons of 1979. Coming off a 10-6 record and their first appearance in the playoffs the previous year with a team that lived off the so-called Grits Blitz and so many miracle finishes, the Falcons went thud to 6-10 last season.

"We came back off that '78 season thinking how easy it would be to make the playoffs again," said safety Tom Pridemore. "We got fat and sassy way too soon."

Eddie LeBaron, the former Redskin quarterback who is the Atlanta general manager, said he was terribly disappointed by 1979, but not especially surprised by the turnaround.

"Last year, people just caught up with us," he said. "We had some people on defense get old faster then we thought they would, but a lot of teams also figured out how to beat the blitz. They were learning how to use the new rules against bumping receivers to their advantage, too."

Nevertheless, LeBaron and Bennett refused to panic, and owner Rankin Smith had the good sense to back both of them. They had begun a drafting program three years before that employed the Big Boy approach to professional football. "We felt that in order to be solid over the long haul, you had to go after the big people, the offensive and defensive linemen who could carry you for 10 or 12 years. We also were concentrating on the offense. Not exclusively, but we knew what we needed and we went after it."

The 1977 draft brought in offensive tackle Bryant and defensive tackle Wilson Faumuina, both in the first round, and Thielemann in the second. In 1978, Kenn was the first-round pick and, in '79, starting nose guard Don Smith was the first selection.

And the Falcons weren't doing so badly in the later rounds or the free-agent market. Andrews, who spent most of his time at Auburn blocking for Joe Cribbs, was a third-round choice. Cain, who was the blocking back for Charles White at USC, was a fourth-round choice. Pridemore came on the ninth. And kicker Tim Mazzetti and linebacker Joel Williams, the team's leading sack man, were obtained off the waiver lists.

But the best for LeBaron and Bennett came in the 1980 draft.

Five of the Falcons' draft picks have been starters at one time or another this season. Four will start against the Cowboys, and all have made significant contributions this season.

First-round pick Junior Miller caught 46 passes at tight end, nine of them for touchdowns, Linebacker Buddy Curry, the second-round choice, led the team in tackles. Cornerback Kenny Johnson, a fifth-round choice, had four interceptions, four fumble recoveries and led the NFC in punt returns with a 12.2-yard average. Linebacker Al Richardson, an eighth-round pick, had a streak of eight straight games with a fumble recovery or interception. And a fifth rookie, fourth-round linebacker Jim Laughlin, filled in nicely for several games when regular Fulton Kuykendall was hurt.

The Falcons are the youngest team in the playoffs, and second youngest behind Kansas City in the NFL. The defense had only three players starting with three or more years of experience -- "That's why you'll always see 11 guys always going toward the football," said Pridemore -- and there are 19 players on the roster in their second year or less.

"We've also changed our philosophy on defense," added LeBaron. "On offense, Junior Miller also helped fill a big gap. He helps our running game as a blocker, and he can catch anything we throw to him. We've been able to control the football more than ever before.

"I'm also the first to admit we got real lucky in the draft, especially with our young linebackers."

The Falcons picked up confidence weekly, starting the season rather sluggishly, losing the opener to Minnesota in the final seconds -- in fact, all four Falcon losses occurred in the last minutes, by a total of 14 points -- and were 3-3 after an unforgivable loss to the Jets.

"But these guys never stopped working, and they never stopped improving," said Bennett.

And so, the Falcons ran off an eight-game winning streak and won their first NFC West title, with Bartkowski enjoying what he now describes as "the most enjoyable year of my life."

"Last year was just awful," he said. "I got to the point where I was being very deeply affected by losing so much. I started clamming up. I didn't talk to reporters. I got depressed. I know now that's wrong, but that's how I reacted. I also spent a lot of time last offseason thinking about what went wrong and how I could do better. We all did, and what you see now is the end result."

The result for Bartkowski, now in his sixth season, included club records for passing yards (3,544), touchdowns (31), completions (257) and consecutive passes without an interception (118).

Bartkowski once played the game with the notion thay anything less than a 25-yard pass wasn't worth throwing. This year, he has utilized all his weapons -- deep throws to swift wide receivers Alfred Jenkins and Wallace Francis, medium-range pitches to Miller and dump-offs to Andrews, who caught 51 passes. And, of course, the soundest move of all was to hand off to Andrews and Cain, who gained 915 yards and scored eight touchdowns.

Andrews takes the usual I-can't thank-my-blockers-enough approach to his success. Yet he also is somewhat miffed that he receives so little media attention, since he has gained more than 1,000 yards each of his first two seasons.

"Sometimes it makes you wonder what you have to do," he said. "But the truth will come out one of these days. I believe I can play as well as anyone in the league. I run with reckless abandon. My philosophy is to take the fight to the other guy, because he'll feel the pain more than you will.

"So I see a real tough, physical game coming against Dallas, and it will come down to who is more prepared to handle it. I think we're the equal of any team in this league. Sunday, we'll prove it."