Bill Belichick, Jim Harbaugh give Patriots, 49ers a coaching edge


Coaches win or lose games at this time of year.

Just look at what happened last Saturday, when Denver Broncos coach John Fox helped hasten the end of his team's season with some questionable decision-making. Look at how Fox's now former offensive coordinator, Mike McCoy, contributed to that loss, as well. Consider how Pete Carroll's mistakes hurt the Seattle Seahawks.

We're approaching the best day of the year, a day that's even better than Super Bowl Sunday: Championship Sunday. The stakes will be even higher than they were last weekend, making everything -- including coaching -- even more important.

With that in mind, I've ranked the four coaches -- four of the best in the NFL -- who will take part in the AFC and NFC Championship Games:

1) Bill Belichick, New England Patriots

He's the best in the league, period. In fact, he's the best coach in pro sports in the past 25 years; he's better than Phil Jackson, Joe Torre, Scotty Bowman or anyone else you want to name. Belichick picks the players, molding and grooming them, and he's also great when it comes to X's and O's. Belichick is a chameleon who will play the 4-3 or the 3-4. The game plans are unpredictable. Practice is precise. His teams are ready to go and remarkably consistent.

Belichick has an 18-7 lifetime playoff record, including three Super Bowl championships. He has the coaching advantage in any game the Patriots play.

2) Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco 49ers

Boy, it wasn't easy separating the Harbaugh brothers. But ultimately, I made this pick relying on both fact and feel.

Sure, I can give you Harbaugh's record as a pro coach (he's 24-7-1 in the regular season, with two playoff wins in two seasons). I can tell you about his success in college at Stanford and San Diego. I can remind you that he rescued the 49ers from the depths of confusion, chaos and despair after the Mike "I want winners" Singletary era (or error).

I can also tell you I want Harbaugh as my coach.

Harbaugh puts on a show for the media, and he puts all of the pressure on himself. He'll make the tough decision, like starting promising youngster Colin Kaepernick over proven veteran Alex Smith, and he has a knack for gaining credence in the locker room. Harbaugh is tough and savvy, and so are his players, who will run through the proverbial wall for him.

3) John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens

Harbaugh has a 54-26 regular-season record as the Ravens' head coach and a 7-4 mark in the playoffs. He's endured some tough losses in big games, but he's also secured some remarkable and gutsy wins, including Baltimore's victory over the Denver Broncos in the divisional round last Saturday.

Harbaugh's players love him. He puts out fires in the press. He is no nonsense.

Since taking over for Brian Billick, he's proven to be one of the better coaches in the NFL, helping to reshape the Ravens over the past five years while (for the most part) maintaining the great identity of Ray Lewis and the defense. That's not an easy balancing act.

4) Mike Smith, Atlanta Falcons

I joked to my editor that this piece would only prompt more calls and radio requests from the 404 area code in Atlanta, where several of my offerings -- such as a column in which I explained why I didn't trust the Falcons as contenders, or another in which I declared that I had more faith in Russell Wilson than Matt Ryan -- have been rather popular this season.

Before you hop on your phone, please understand that I think Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff have done a brilliant job turning around the franchise. Remember where the Falcons were after Michael Vick went to jail and Bobby Petrino quit like a lying coward? Since he took over in 2008, Smith's record is 56-24 in the regular season.

However, Falcons fans should ask themselves what they would've been saying about Smith if Atlanta had lost to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.

Smith is 1-3 in the playoffs, suffering some brutal and devastating losses. He can be goofy with in-game decisions.

I like Smith, but compared to the other three coaches with teams playing on Sunday, I'd rank him fourth.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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