East of the Rockies and north of the Pecos, the playoff game at Anaheim today is regarded as more of a lounge act than a headline attraction. The game between the Rams (11-5) and Dallas Cowboys (10-6) matches division champions but is the only game this weekend in which neither team is taken seriously as a Super Bowl contender. Each is considered more like next week's leftover meat loaf for the Bears.
The Cowboys have already felt the Bears' ferocity, absorbing their worst defeat, 44-0. Certainly, whichever side is left standing will be offered a cigarette and a blindfold en route to Illinois for the NFC title game.
John Robinson, however, loves the scenario. As far as the Ram coach is concerned, he could have written it himself.
"Great," he said Friday. "I would love to be thought of in that light. I think it'd be great to go back to Chicago and have people say, 'You got no chance.' They didn't think we did at San Francisco, either. We'll buy up all their videos."
Of course, the Rams could win and play the Giants at home--presuming an upset in Sunday's game--or they could lose and watch the Cowboys play the Giants at Dallas. Bear mania ignores those other possibilities.
"We'll play 'em both," Robinson said, laughing. "They can combine the squads, as long as they let us keep playing.
"The worst thing about that perception is that it can take away from this game, and it's a huge, huge game for both these teams. There's nothing more fun than this kind of football game, particularly when you're playing a good team and the world's watching."
Fun? A check of the Rams' mood before their last, light practice Friday revealed Gary Jeter teasing Irv Pankey about Pankey's skinny legs, tight end David Hill imitating a quarterback and several others playing with a medicine ball.
"They're a tight group, aren't they?" backup quarterback Jeff Kemp observed.
Nothing to lose, you say? Each player will receive $10,000, win or lose, and the winners will get $18,000 more for playing in the NFC title game. The money was the same after the last two seasons, when the Rams finished second to the 49ers and had to play the wild-card game.
The difference this time, Robinson said, may be that they've got a lot of energy. "There's a rebirth," he said. "I'm sure it's the same with Dallas."
Both sides have had two weeks to get over the mental and physical traumas of their closing defeats. The Cowboys lost at San Francisco, 31-16, which meant that the Rams technically had nothing to gain by beating the Raiders the next night--which they didn't, 16-6.
Cowboy Coach Tom Landry held out quarterback Danny White, leading receiver Tony Hill and cornerback Ron Fellows with non-disabling injuries, and Robinson held back a few ideas he planned to use against the Cowboys' five- to seven-back pass defense.
It was their time to regroup. Each had a fast start, followed by a downhill slide, and had to win a critical game at the end to win the division title. The Rams went 7-0 and then 4-5. The Cowboys were 5-1 and then 5-5, and among their losses were blowouts by the Bears and Cincinnati, 50-24.
"Clearly, the Cowboys are a better team than they played in those two, as we are better than we played at Atlanta (a 30-14 loss) and New Orleans (a 29-3 loss)," Robinson said.
The point is, when the Rams had to beat the 49ers and the Cowboys had to beat the Giants, they did, which is how they arrived here today.
Said Cowboy Coach Tom Landry, who has coached in and won more playoff games than anybody else, 35 and 20, respectively: "I'm not really worried which team will show up, but it should be interesting. You never can tell when this team is going to play good.
"I can't even tell in workouts how this team is going to do. But I know you can't count them out."
Attitude is a Cowboy question. There is fear of a letdown, since the Cowboys have already achieved Landry's preseason goal by winning the NFC East title. But the same could be said of the Rams, who returned to the top of the NFC West for the first time since 1979.
"We don't have the pressure we have had in the past, when we were favorites to make it to the Super Bowl," Landry said.
This game will be the eighth in the NFL's most frequent playoff rivalry. The Cowboys lead, 4-3. They won NFC title games to keep the Rams out of the Super Bowl in '75 and '78; the Rams have won two of three divisional playoffs dating back to '73, and they split wild-card games in '80 and '83.
But the feature of the series that leaps out at those who trust trends is that the home team has lost five of the last six games.
Those considerations aside, the teams are difficult to separate. The Cowboys appear stronger on offense, but the Rams seem better on defense and special teams.
The Rams could be better on offense, some believe, if Robinson would unleash the passing potential of Dieter Brock throwing to Henry Ellard and Ron Brown. Nobody has a stronger arm or faster receivers.
Brock, like Danny White in '84, has suffered through a season of low public esteem, but Robinson eased the situation late in the season by shifting the heat to himself for being too conservative.
"I'd rather have me criticized than him," Robinson said. "I think we've reached the point now where most people think Dieter's OK if I'd just let him have a chance."
But the Cowboys will be geared first to stop Eric Dickerson, then take their chances on Brock--literally--with their fast and loose 4-0 up-front pass defense of four linemen and no linebackers, which helped Dallas rank second to the Bears with 33 interceptions.
The Rams' concern on defense is not so much the running of halfback Tony Dorsett as it is Dorsett's ability as a pass receiver. The Rams need to contain Dorsett's receiving--as they did Marcus Allen's--but also apply some pressure to Danny White, who is more dangerous, given time, than the Raiders' Marc Wilson.
On their part, the Cowboys must be careful with Ellard on punt returns and Brown on kickoff returns.
"That's what worries you most," Landry said.
Routine offense and defense take care of themselves. It's the big play or the bad bounce that can break open a close game, which this figures to be.
Apparently, the Rams aren't worrying about it. They act as if they won't be playing scared.
"You get fearless when you're really confident about what you're doing," Robinson said.
Linebacker Mel Owens said: "If you get worried and play tight, you aren't going to play as well as you did all year. We're better overall this year than the other playoff teams I've been on. If we're worried about anything, we're worried about ourselves. We aren't worried about the other team."
Nor, it seems, the one after that.
"The Bears have to play the Giants," Owens said. "We'll see who's waiting for who afterward. If (the Bears) think they're gonna cakewalk through it, that stuff can backfire on you."