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McCarthy sits atop NFC with best start among active coaches

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Mike McCarthy still relishes the inspiring phone call he received from the Bengals' Marvin Lewis after his first win as head coach of the Green Bay Packers.

"He just said, 'Hey, you're doing it the right way, and you'll appreciate it,"' McCarthy said. "He says, 'Trust me. All these guys that are winning a bunch of games in their first year as a head coach, they're in for a tough rude awakening. You'll appreciate it more when you have to earn it like you did."'

The uplifting moment came just in time during a trying first season for McCarthy, who sought Lewis out at the NFL Combine this year.

"I told him I was under the desk when the phone rang. I had to reach up and pick it up," McCarthy joked.

Just how far the Packers have come?

McCarthy's first team sank to 4-8 before rebounding to win the final four. In Year 2, the Packers are 8-1 so far, tied with Dallas for the best record in the NFC.

Oh, and McCarthy has a new title: Best start to a career among active coaches, tying Washington's Joe Gibbs at 16-9 after 25 games.

It's also the best coaching start in Packers' history (Vince Lombardi went 15-10, winning a title in his third year), but McCarthy doesn't want any accolades yet.

"It's human nature when people are throwing you flowers and saying a lot of nice things, you can kind of take a step back and have an attitude of trying to smell the roses. The roses in my opinion don't come until after Glendale, Arizona," said McCarthy, referring to the site of the upcoming Super Bowl.

Suddenly, a Packers' Super Bowl appearance doesn't seem quite so far-fetched.

Brett Favre is having one of his best seasons in his 17-year career, completing 67.2 percent of his passes and throwing for an NFL-best 2,757 yards with twice as many touchdowns (16) as interceptions (8).

The defense is deep, young and explosive, holding the Vikings offense led by running back Adrian Peterson, who two weeks ago had an NFL-record 296 yards, to just 108 yards through three quarters while the Pack jumped out to a 27-0 lead Sunday.

But McCarthy remembers the struggles, too. The Patriots came into Lambeau Field last year at this point of the season and embarrassed them 35-0, in a game even more lopsided than the score, knocking out three-time MVP Favre in the process.

"I never questioned the plan. There were some tough moments," McCarthy said. "It's important as you do build your program, whatever scheme you're in, what you're trying to accomplish, to stay with the mind-set of stacking successes. You may get tired of hearing it, but when you have something positive happen, keep building on it."

That start happened even earlier, when Ted Thompson was hired as general manager in place of Mike Sherman, who had previously held both titles.

Sherman lost his coaching job, too, after going 4-12 in 2005, and Thompson has stuck to his philosophy of building through the draft and shunning big ticket free agents in all but a few cases, like cornerback Charles Woodson.

The Packers let Ahman Green, the franchise's second leading rusher, sign a free-agent deal with Houston this offseason for $23 million. Green Bay's running game has only recently begun to emerge with Ryan Grant leading the way with 305 yards rushing on 72 attempts -- Green, meanwhile, has 260 yards on 70 carries for the Texans.

Despite having gotten younger in each of McCarthy's two seasons, Green Bay has reeled off 12 wins in 13 games.

"To me, last year was a year to rebuild a foundation that we were able to build off of this year. That's the way I view it," McCarthy said. "(When) you're given an opportunity to coach for the Green Bay Packers, you have all the resources that you need, you have no excuses."

That's McCarthy's "brutal honesty" and it's been successful so far on every level.

"I can go right back to the first speech that I had given this football team and go right to the first page of the PowerPoint," McCarthy said. "The first thing I told the football team that spring was the biggest challenge that we'll have here is handling success."

The coaching staff admires how McCarthy motivates his players.

"He's very upfront with people. Guys respect that," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "Players want to know where they stand. Coaches like to know that, too. He's a very upfront guy, very approachable guy."

As for passing Lombardi and joining Gibbs, McCarthy is muted. Not that it's a surprise.

"Those records, those are nice," McCarthy said. "My focus is on winning the world's championship. That will always be the focus regardless of how many games it takes to get there through the regular season and so forth. Because when you win championships, everything else takes care of itself."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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