If the Atlanta Falcons aren't the best team in the NFC, they certainly can be the most exciting. Triple-tipped, 80-yard touchdown receptions in the last minute have become commonplace in Fulton County Stadium.
The defending division champion Falcons (12-4) are solid enough to win without such frenzied finishes, but they seem to prefer the dramatic.
Much of the flair is due to the maturing of quarterback Steve Bartkowski, who only now is reaching full potential.
He also has two excellent runners, William Andrews and Lynn Cain, the most productive starting backfield in the league last year. Both could rush 1,000 yards this season behind the offensive line that features Mike Kenn and Warren Bryant. Andrews gained 1,308 yards last year, Cain 914.
As innovative as Coach Leeman Bennett is, the Falcon offense traditionally allows its running game to set up the pass to wide receivers Wallace Francis, Alfred Jenkins and tight end Junior Miller.
Jenkins caught 57 passes last season, Francis 54, Andrews 51 and Miller 46. Atlanta is the closest thing the NFC has to a superior AFC team: a San Diego of the South.
Bartkowski threw more touchdown passes last season (31) than any other quarterback in the NFL. And the Falcons were the only team to finish in the top 10 in rushing and passing.
The Atlanta linebackers have engulfed running backs like Walter Payton, Tony Dorsett and Wilbert Montgomery. The Falcons' biggest weakness is the secondary. Like Dallas, Atlanta can be had through the air.
The Rams, who finished 11-5 and in second place last season, seem to have too little offense to catch Atlanta, especially since quarterback Vince Ferragamo took his strong right arm to the Canadian Football League. Detractors say Pat Haden is still too short and so are his passes. But he is a smart pro not given to dumb mistakes.
Even under Ferragamo, the Los Angeles offense has never been especially imaginative. The Rams are a typical NFC team in many respects: they run on first down, run on second down and throw on third if more than three yards are needed.
The Rams led the league with 615 rushing plays last season and averaged more than 33 minutes of ball possession. The Ram rushers will be led by fullback Cullen Bryant.
The Ram defense was fourth against the run and second against the pass last year and will attain at least that level this season even though linebackers Jack Reynolds (San Francisco) and Bob Brudzinski (Miami) were eliminated. The aging defensive line nevertheless recorded 46 of the team's conference-high 56 sacks last season.
New Orleans should improve enough under new Coach Bum Phillips to challenge San Francisco for third place.
The Saints, 1-15 a year ago, now have the league's funniest coach. Better yet, they have George Rogers, the Heisman Trophy winner from South Carolina. They don't have much more. Rogers and tight ends Brooks Williams and Larry Hardy will probably line up in an offensive formation similar to what Phillips used in Houston.
Archie Manning, if healthy, can be outstanding. Last year, Manning led the NFC in passing yards (3,716) and again will throw to two able receivers, Ike Harris and Wes Chandler.
Phillips' laid-back attitude might be good for three or four wins, but a few injuries to the thin Saint defensive and offensive lines could have fans wearing bags over their heads again.
The 49ers, 6-10 last year, will continue to pass, pass, pass. Joe Montana, who completed a league-high 64.5 percent of his attempts last season but averaged 6.6 yards per completion, may throw more.
Last year, running back Earl Cooper caught 83 passes and receiver Dwight Clark caught 82. Running back Paul Hofer grabbed 41 in six games. But San Fransisco's opponents completed 66 percent of their own passes against a porous 49er secondary. San Fransisco drafted four defensive backs, including No. 1 choice Ronnie Lott.