Six years after Jim Mora started chasing Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers, his New Orleans Saints finally are in position to overtake them in the NFC West.
The Saints are one of four unbeaten teams in the NFL and perhaps the league's biggest surprise a quarter of the way through the season. They take a two-game division lead into Atlanta Sunday, and some people are beginning to believe they can make that lead hold up.
When New Orleans manhandled Minnesota 26-0 last Sunday, Vikings quarterback Wade Wilson called the Saints the best team he had faced this year. That's not insignificant when you consider the Vikings have played the 49ers (without the injured Montana) and the unbeaten Chicago Bears.
In their three other victories, the Saints beat Seattle 27-24 on a late fourth-down pass by Bobby Hebert, Kansas City 17-10 in Kansas City, and the Rams 24-7. So far they have the best defense in the league, giving up a league-low 41 points. But they're also showing a lot more offense than they did a year ago, when John Fourcade and Steve Walsh quarterbacked them to a limp 8-8 playoff bid.
The reasons the Saints have become a legitimate contender in the NFC this year:
* The return of Hebert from a contract dispute and one-year holdout. Hebert has completed 57 percent of his passes for 739 yards to take the heat off the running game.
* The decision by Mora not to make an issue of Craig "Ironhead" Heyward's weight. Heyward, a No. 1 draft pick in 1988, reported to camp at 299 pounds last summer. But Mora has decided not to press the issue any longer. After a quiet first two games, Heyward has rushed for 72 yards and two TDs in each of the last two.
* The return of Frank Warren from a one-year drug suspension to provide the defense with a run-stopping end. Mora rotates six defensive linemen (Warren, Jim Wilks and Wayne Martin are the starters) and says this unit is the best he has had in the Bayou city.
* The linebacking corps, long the strength of the defense, has kicked its performance level up another notch. Inside linebacker Sam Mills, playing virtually every down now after playing mostly against the run earlier in his career, has never played better. And Pat Swilling has a Lawrence Taylor presence with his outside pass rush. Rickey Jackson and Vaughan Johnson round out that group.
The Saints don't play San Francisco until Nov. 10 at home, by which time Montana may be back. But by then, it may already be too late for the rest of the NFC West.
* WHO'S HOT: If you're looking for surprise teams this season, keep these in mind:
* Philadelphia Eagles. After losing Randall Cunningham in the opener, nobody gave the Eagles a prayer in the NFC East. But they'll take a 3-1 record into Monday night's game at Washington with first place at stake. With Jim McMahon (64 percent passer for 923 yards) at quarterback, the Eagles are more of a ball-control offense. McMahon says he hasn't changed from his days in Chicago, except that, "I'm not fighting as much with the coach."
* Detroit Lions. Everybody thought Wayne Fontes was on the way out as coach after a 45-0 loss in Washington. But the Lions have won three in a row with the return of Barry Sanders. Not coincidentally, they appear to have abandoned the run-and-shoot offense. Sanders has rushed 62 times for 272 yards (a 4.4 average) in the last two weeks. Asked if he was worried he might wear out Sanders, Fontes, a former assistant at Southern Cal, said, "Like John McKay used to say about wearing out O.J. Simpson, 'The ball isn't very heavy.' "
* New England Patriots. Until last week, the only team the Patriots could beat was the Colts. Then they knocked off the Houston Oilers in Foxboro and got everybody's attention. Dick MacPherson inherited a 1-15 team and at 2-2, he's already exceeded expectations.
* WHO'S NOT: These people already are wondering where the first four games went:
* Rams quarterback Jim Everett, the only starter in the NFL withouta touchdown pass.
* Vikings defensive end Chris Doleman, who doesn't have a sack.
* Colts running back Eric Dickerson, averaging just 3.2 yards a carry after gaining a career-low 17 yards on 13 carries last week.
* Bucs coach Richard Williamson, who scrapped his offense and benched his quarterback while losing four games by a total of 13 points. He is 1-6 since taking over for Ray Perkins.
* Chargers coach Dan Henning, who is 0-4 and doesn't have a capable quarterback.
* AUDIBLES: Green Bay Packers Hall of Famer Willie Davis, who once was aligned with a group in pursuit of a Baltimore expansion team, has shifted allegiances. He's now with the Billy Dunavant-Paul Tudor Jones ownership group in Memphis . . . Maybe it's because he is 3-1 lifetime against the Raiders, but Falcons coach Jerry Glanville didn't hesitate to put down Art Shell's eight-man offensive line after Atlanta's 21-17 win. "If they were going to bring the 'Tilt,' we were going to give them a headache," Glanville said. "They can go play their pinball machine somewhere else."
After winning six of eight last week, the NFC holds an 11-5 edge in interconference matchups this season . . . Houston's loss in New England exposed the Oilers' biggest liability come playoff time -- they can't win on the road . . . Think the NFL wouldn't like to see a Buffalo-Washington Super Bowl? The Bills are averaging 31.7 points and 461 yards a game, the Redskins 36.5 points and 354.5 yards . . . The home team has won 66 percent of its games (37 of 56) this season, compared to 58 percent a year ago . . . The Raiders are 3-12 traveling to the East Coast since 1986 . . . The Giants lost nine fumbles last season. This year they've lost five in four weeks.
* LAST WORD: Cowboys offensive tackle Nate Newton, on running back Emmitt Smith: "He can stop on a dime and give you 9 1/2 cents change."