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SEASON PREVIEW: RAMS ’91 : THE OPPONENTS

PHOENIX CARDINALS SEPT. 1, SUNDAY, 1 P.M., ANAHEIM STADIUM LAST MEETING: 1989: RAMS 37, PHOENIX 14 THE SERIES: RAMS LEAD, 16-9-2 1990 RECORD: 5-11

KEY OFFENSIVE STARTERS: Coach Joe Bugel has altered his one-back attack to get second-year runners Johnny Johnson and Anthony Thompson on the field at the same time. Quarterback could be a problem; maturing third-year man Timm Rosenbach injured a knee during a drill last week and could be done for the year.

KEY DEFENSIVE STARTERS: Once again, Fritz Shurmur has to design a scheme for a defense short on talented linemen. So the former Ram defensive coordinator will make good use of his linebackers. The starting four--Freddie Joe Nunn, Ken Harvey, Anthony Bell and Eric Hill--are all first-round draft choices.

THE RAMS COULD DO WITHOUT SEEING: Second-year sensation Ricky Proehl or deep-threat Ernie Jones with a step on a defensive back when they’re blitzing.

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NEW YORK GIANTS SEPT. 8, SUNDAY, 10 A.M., GIANTS STADIUM, EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. LAST YEAR: NEW YORK 31, RAMS 7 THE SERIES: RAMS LEAD, 17-7 1990 RECORD: 13-3

KEY OFFENSIVE STARTERS: The Giants committed only 14 turnovers in the regular season last year, none in the playoffs. They won a Super Bowl with ball control. Who’s the key? The indefatigable Ottis Anderson? Last year’s first-round pick, Rodney Hampton? A talented, young offensive line?

KEY DEFENSIVE STARTERS: Ten years of fighting off double teams--and a preseason ankle injury--has taken a toll on Lawrence Taylor, but he hasn’t lost that much. He’ll still be double-teamed, but you can’t forget linebackers Carl Banks, Pepper Johnson and Gary Reasons. Some say Mark Collins, from Cal State Fullerton, is the best cornerback in the league.

THE RAMS COULD DO WITHOUT SEEING: The Giants’ always-tough defense stifling their running game, which could mean open season for Taylor and Co. on Jim Everett.

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NEW ORLEANS SAINTS SEPT. 15, SUNDAY, 5 P.M., LOUISIANA SUPERDOME, NEW ORLEANS NOV.3, SUNDAY, 1 P.M., ANAHEIM STADIUM LAST YEAR: NEW ORLEANS 24, RAMS 20; NEW ORLEANS 20, RAMS 17 THE SERIES: RAMS LEAD, 26-16 1990 RECORD: 8-8

KEY OFFENSIVE STARTERS: Bobby Hebert, back from a year-long contract holdout, could provide the kind of leadership at quarterback New Orleans so obviously lacked last year. A healthy Dalton Hilliard is also crucial for the run-oriented Saints. Eric Martin, who has a club-high 332 career receptions, is the mainstay receiver.

KEY DEFENSIVE STARTERS: This is the fifth season in a row the Saints have started Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson and Pat Swilling at linebacker, and all four have made at least one trip to the Pro Bowl.

THE RAMS COULD DO WITHOUT SEEING: Morten Andersen, who has 16 field goals of more than 50 yards and has kicked 10 game-winning field goals, anywhere near midfield with the Saints trailing by three points or fewer late in the game.

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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS SEPT. 22, SUNDAY, 1 P.M., CANDLESTICK PARK, SAN FRANCISCO NOV. 25, MONDAY, 6 P.M., ANAHEIM STADIUM LAST YEAR: RAMS 28, SAN FRANCISCO 17; SAN FRANCISCO 26 RAMS 10 THE SERIES: RAMS LEAD, 48-33-2 1990 RECORD: 14-2

KEY OFFENSIVE STARTERS: Need we mention Joe Montana? How about Jerry Rice and John Taylor? Together, they caught 149 passes for 2,250 yards and 20 touchdowns last year. And then there’s tight end Brent Jones, who had 56 receptions last season.

KEY DEFENSIVE STARTERS: Ronnie Lott is gone, but veteran David Waymer, who had a team-high seven interceptions last year, is back at safety to fill the void. Waymer has the savvy to excel in the 49ers’ zone and the leadership to direct traffic. Defensive ends Kevin Fagan and Pierce Holt have become the heart of the defense.

THE RAMS COULD DO WITHOUT SEEING: Montana with the ball in his hand anywhere near midfield with the 49ers trailing by seven or fewer points in the final seconds of the game.

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GREEN BAY PACKERS SEPT. 29, SUNDAY, 1 P.M., ANAHEIM STADIUM LAST YEAR: GREEN BAY 36, RAMS 24 THE SERIES: RAMS LEAD, 38-23-1 1990 RECORD: 6-10

KEY OFFENSIVE STARTERS: Quarterback Don Majkowski started slow after a prolonged holdout last year, but the Packers really hit the skids (1-5) after he went out for the season with a shoulder injury. Green Bay fans have to hope he’ll come all the way back from the surgery.

KEY DEFENSIVE STARTERS: Holdout linebacker Tim Harris, who played almost as good a game as he talked in 1989 (19 1/2 sacks), had only seven sacks last year. At 27, he might be wearing down a bit, but when he settles his contract hassles, he will still get double- and triple-teamed.

THE RAMS COULD DO WITHOUT SEEING: Majkowski unveiling any new chapters in his already impressive book titled “Unstructured Scrambles Turned Into Touchdowns and Other Last-Minute Heroics.”

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SAN DIEGO CHARGERS OCT. 13, SUNDAY, 1 P.M., ANAHEIM STADIUM LAST MEETING: 1988: SAN DIEGO 38, RAMS 24 THE SERIES: Tied, 2-2 1990 RECORD: 6-10

KEY OFFENSIVE STARTERS: Pro Bowl running back Marion Butts was third in rushing in the NFL last season with a club-record 1,225 yards. He carried 265 times without fumbling. Having ended his holdout, he will again provide the Chargers with an ideal ball-control dimension. Receiver Anthony Miller, who has fluid, home-run speed and deceptive moves, caught 63 passes last year.

KEY DEFENSIVE STARTERS: In eight seasons with San Diego, Gill Byrd has played all four positions in the secondary. The past three years, he’s played left corner with seven interceptions each season. Linebacker Junior Seau is an impact player whether he lines up inside or outside.

THE RAMS COULD DO WITHOUT SEEING: Seau and Leslie O’Neal, a two-time Pro Bowl linebacker, in Jim Everett’s face.

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LOS ANGELES RAIDERS OCT. 20, SUNDAY, 1 P.M., L.A. COLISEUM LAST MEETING: 1988: RAMS 22, L.A. RAIDERS 17 THE SERIES: RAIDERS LEAD, 4-2 1990 RECORD: 12-4

KEY OFFENSIVE STARTERS: Center Don Mosebar and guard Steve Wisniewski, both Pro Bowl selections, anchor an offensive line that also includes 6-foot-5, 295-pound Max Montoya. Tailback Marcus Allen is 31, but he still has great instincts.

KEY DEFENSIVE STARTERS: The Raiders’ defensive line had 35 sacks last year, more than the team total of 12 other NFL franchises. Ends Howie Long and Greg Townsend and tackle Bob Golic have all made Pro Bowl appearances. Cornerbacks Terry McDaniel and Lionel Washington are adept enough at the bump-and-run style to make the defense work.

THE RAMS COULD DO WITHOUT SEEING: Quarterback Jay Schroeder deploying his group of talented wide receivers and then having plenty of time to connect with them, or Allen on the loose.

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ATLANTA FALCONS OCT. 27, SUNDAY, 10 A.M., FULTON COUNTY STADIUM, ATLANTA, GA. DEC. 8, SUNDAY, 1 P.M., ANAHEIM STADIUM LAST YEAR: ATLANTA 44, RAMS 24; RAMS 20, ATLANTA 13 THE SERIES: RAMS LEAD, 35-11-2 1990 RECORD: 5-11

KEY OFFENSIVE STARTERS: In Coach Jerry Glanville’s “Red Gun” offense, home-run-hitting receiver Andre Rison is about the most valuable player in the NFL--if erratic quarterback Chris Miller gets him the ball. If runner Steve Broussard shakes off the rookie blahs, this offense can dazzle.

KEY DEFENSIVE STARTERS: With more talent than cornerback Deion Sanders can shake his fist at, the Falcons plan on plundering by force of their overwhelming size and speed. They added pure cover man Tim McKyer to team with Deion, and one day, linebacker Aundray Bruce just might bust out of his 6-foot-6, 250-pound shell.

THE RAMS COULD DO WITHOUT SEEING: The emotion-charged defense getting its act together, stuffing the run, finding a consistent pass rush and coming at the Rams with full force and intention to maim.

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KANSAS CITY CHIEFS NOV. 10, SUNDAY, 1 P.M., ANAHEIM STADIUM LAST MEETING: 1985: RAMS 16, KANSAS CITY 0 THE SERIES: RAMS LEAD, 3-0 1990 RECORD: 11-5

KEY OFFENSIVE STARTERS: If ageless quarterback Steve DeBerg can duplicate his his stunning 23-4 TD-to-INT ratio, the Chiefs are a machine. But he’s 37 now, and how long can it last? After a mediocre 1990, monster-back Christian Okoye looks as if he’s set for some 1989-vintage mayhem.

KEY DEFENSIVE STARTERS: Sack-meister Derrick Thomas (20 last year) gets all the glory--yes, he is the next LT--but it’s cornerback Albert Lewis, an odds-on Hall of Famer, who is this team’s best player, and it’s young strong safety Kevin Porter who must step up this year.

THE RAMS COULD DO WITHOUT SEEING: Okoye and the rest of the Chiefs’ burly-back offense chopping through the Rams’ eight-man line, setting the stage for DeBerg’s pinpoint accuracy all over the field.

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DETROIT LIONS NOV. 17, SUNDAY, 1 P.M., PONTIAC SILVERDOME, PONTIAC, MICH. LAST MEETING: 1988: RAMS 17, DETROIT 10 THE SERIES: RAMS LEAD, 32-26-1 1990 RECORD: 6-10

KEY OFFENSIVE STARTERS: Why throw 50 times when you’ve got Barry Sanders? The Lions have finally figured out that when you’ve got the world’s greatest runner, you give him the ball . When Sanders tires, quarterback Rodney Peete will have to stay healthy long enough to make a difference.

KEY DEFENSIVE STARTERS: Defensive tackle Jerry Ball is often overweight but often overwhelming, too, and when he gets going, the Lions actually can stop people. He was off in 1990 (two sacks), and the Lions gave up 358 yards per game. Linebackers Chris Spielman and Mike Cofer are impressive but not dominant.

THE RAMS COULD DO WITHOUT SEEING: The Lions jumping to an early lead, allowing them to get Barry, Barry conservative. Last year, in a total run-and-shoot, the Lions couldn’t sit on the ball. Now, they will try.

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WASHINGTON REDSKINS DEC. 1, SUNDAY, 1 P.M., ANAHEIM STADIUM LAST MEETING: 1987: RAMS 30, WASHINGTON 26 THE SERIES: REDSKINS LEAD, 10-5-1 1990 RECORD: 10-6

KEY OFFENSIVE STARTERS: This is the pivotal year for Mark Rypien. You expect great things from a quarterback with the Redskins’ wonderful wideouts, protected by tackle Jim Lachey and Co., and handing off to Earnest Byner. You don’t always get great things from Rypien.

KEY DEFENSIVE STARTERS: With Dexter Manley gone and Charles Mann starting to break down, look for linebacker Wilber Marshall to assume the mantle of big-play man. Cornerback Darrell Green usually is asked to cover one side of the field by himself, and he usually does.

THE RAMS COULD DO WITHOUT SEEING: Art Monk, Gary Clark and Rickey Sanders getting free deep and Rypien having time to hit them. They used to kill Jeff Fisher’s defense when he was with the Eagles, and that’s when Fisher had a great pass rush.

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MINNESOTA VIKINGS DEC. 15, SUNDAY, 10 A.M., METRODOME, MINNEAPOLIS, MINN. LAST MEETING: 1989: MINNESOTA 23, RAMS 21 (OVERTIME) THE SERIES: MINNESOTA LEADS, 18-12-2 1990 RECORD: 6-10

KEY OFFENSIVE STARTERS: Is this Herschel Walker’s redemption year? He has a new contract, a new offense designed for him, and maybe a chance to make the Twin Cities forget what they gave up to get him from Dallas. In guard Randall McDaniel, Walker has the right lead blocker for it.

KEY DEFENSIVE STARTERS: When tackle Keith Millard went down with major knee surgery last year, the Viking defense went down with him, with end Chris Doleman’s sack total collapsing from 20 in 1989 to 11. His return is essential, as is the continued excellence of strong safety Joey Browner.

THE RAMS COULD DO WITHOUT SEEING: Jim Everett down on the ground about eight times under the weight of Millard and Doleman. The Vikings begin everything with their defensive line, and if you can’t stop them, you’re dead.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS DEC. 22, SUNDAY, 5 P.M., KINGDOME, SEATTLE, WASH. LAST MEETING: 1988: RAMS 31, SEATTLE 10 THE SERIES: RAMS LEAD, 4-0 1990 RECORD: 9-7

KEY OFFENSIVE STARTERS: Running back Derrick Fenner does exactly what the Seahawks desperately need--get the ball into the end zone. He rushed for 14 touchdowns last year, and was just about unstoppable inside the five. Quarterback Dave Krieg, as always, is unpredictable and is coming off a bad year.

KEY DEFENSIVE STARTERS: Middle linebacker Dave Wyman holds this steady group together without flash or attention, but last year’s No. 1 pick Cortez Kennedy could be the huge lineman who lifts the defense to a higher level.

THE RAMS COULD DO WITHOUT SEEING: A cagey Krieg dumping bundles of passes to fullback John L. Williams to defeat the Rams’ blitzes, then winding up and bombing deep to receiver Brian Blades when the safeties cheat to stop Williams.

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