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Sizing up the playoff coaches

If one only goes by postseason coaching experience, the Green Bay Packers shouldn't have a prayer in their divisional-round playoff game Saturday against the Seattle Seahawks.

The Packers' Mike McCarthy is making his postseason debut as a head coach.

The Seahawks' Mike Holmgren has been head coach of three Super Bowl teams (two with Green Bay), leading one (the Packers) to victory.

Yet McCarthy's Packers had the better regular season, which is why they received a first-round bye and why the game is at Lambeau Field. They finished the season with a higher ranking on offense and defense.

Does all of that become meaningless after Saturday's opening kickoff? It could. Holmgren has made plenty of decisions under playoff pressure. If, at a crucial time, McCarthy should experience a meltdown under the stress brought on by the elevated stakes, no one would exactly be shocked. He is, after all, a rookie.

Still, a good coach is a good coach. If you've made mostly smart, sound decisions from September through December, chances are you'll do the same in January and February, even if you've never guided a team in those months.

Like everything else this time of year, coaching is more heavily scrutinized than at any other time. The head coaches in the final eight have varying degrees of experience and success in the postseason. And their body of work has plenty of influence on how their teams are expected to perform.

What follows is one man's ranking of the playoff head coaches:

1. Bill Belichick, New England: With three Super Bowl victories and a 16-0 season, could there really be any other choice? Belichick was the landslide pick for 2007 AP Coach of the Year. But even before the Patriots achieved perfection, he established himself as one of the greatest coaches in NFL history. So far, Belichick's '07 performance has been the best of his career, and not only because the Pats haven't lost a game. It is because of his ability to keep his players so incredibly well focused each time they have taken the field. Belichick remains the master of in-game adjustments on both sides of the ball. Giving him an extra week of preparation has to be considered an unfair advantage, which has absolutely nothing to do with the "Spygate" cheating scandal and everything to do with Belichick's considerable intelligence and keen instincts. The Patriots' abundance of talent, especially on offense, is a huge factor in their success. However, it wouldn't mean nearly as much without Belichick's coaching.

2. Tony Dungy, Indianapolis: Dungy is here largely because the Colts are the defending Super Bowl champions, but that's hardly the only reason. He has done a tremendous job of negotiating his team through the many landmines found in the path of a team the season after it has hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Dungy saw to it that, for the most part, the Colts did not let down even though every opponent was gunning for them and their championship hunger could easily have waned. He also did a nice job of allowing the Colts to overcome injuries to key players, including Marvin Harrison and Dwight Freeney. Dungy passed the ultimate postseason coaching test by leading his club back from an 18-point deficit to beat the Patriots in the 2006 AFC Championship Game. Additionally, he got the Colts' defense, atrocious through most of last season, to perform at a high level in the playoffs. His players tend to respond favorably to his calm demeanor, which is particularly helpful in the postseason.

3. Mike Holmgren, Seattle: His Super Bowl experience has to count for plenty. So does his exceptional skill at putting together an effective offense. The Seahawks don't have a running game, yet Matt Hasselbeck is among the top quarterbacks in the league. Hasselbeck's 28 regular-season touchdown passes equal the total thrown by his counterpart Sunday, Brett Favre, whom Holmgren helped mold into a three-time NFL MVP. Holmgren's demanding style has done wonders to allow Hasselbeck to go from a sixth-round choice of the Packers, who used him as a backup, to an elite player for the Seahawks. The Seahawks respond well to Holmgren's fiery nature, which has not dissipated despite the distinct possibility that he could retire after Seattle finishes playing (he nearly booted his entire team off the practice field earlier in the week).

4. Wade Phillips, Dallas: Phillips' 0-3 postseason record is impossible to ignore, but it hardly means that the Cowboys are doomed. He had to do something right in his first season at the helm in Dallas for the team to go 13-3. And one thing that Phillips does better than most coaches is put together a strong, playmaking defense. He also managed, along with offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, to get the best out of quarterback Tony Romo and temperamental receiver Terrell Owens. After a contentious relationship with hard-edged Bill Parcells in 2006, Owens has been a much happier player under the laid-back Phillips. Some critics believe Phillips' approach is too easy going and led to the Cowboys' poor showings at the end of the season when they had less incentive to win.

5. Mike McCarthy, Green Bay: As a postseason rookie in only his second year as an NFL head coach, he is hard to assess. Yet he did do a terrific job during the regular season, and merited strong consideration for '07 Coach of the Year. McCarthy's greatest work has been in helping Favre enjoy a revival for the ages. McCarthy did what many cynics deemed impossible by getting Favre, in his 17th NFL season, to become a more disciplined quarterback. He convinced him not to take as many risks as he once did and to look for higher-percentage completions. It all started last offseason, when he gathered Favre and his other quarterbacks to study videotape of every offensive play from the 2006 season, determining why calls worked or didn't work and how opponents defended them. It could very well end with Favre winning his second Super Bowl. McCarthy also did an amazing job of helping the Packers, who couldn't run earlier in the season, to find an effective ground attack.

6. Tom Coughlin, N.Y. Giants: He has received a great deal of praise for having his starters play through most of the regular-season finale against New England. At first, that was mostly appreciated for esthetic reasons, because it helped lead to a surprisingly entertaining game worthy of the extraordinary exposure it received on three television networks. But after the Giants' wild-card win at Tampa Bay, Coughlin was credited with keeping his front-line players mentally sharp and better prepared to handle the rigors of the postseason. He also has done an excellent job of getting his players to perform well on the road; the Giants have won eight successive road games, including the playoff. But Coughlin is the same coach who was widely speculated to be flirting with the loss of his job late in the season. Eli Manning's inconsistent performance has been a major strike against Coughlin, although the young quarterback has been playing some of his best football of late.

7. Jack Del Rio, Jacksonville: He might have done his finest postseason work just before the Jaguars' winning field-goal drive in their wild-card victory at Pittsburgh. Despite the fact his team had squandered an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter, Del Rio was calm and upbeat on the sidelines as he told the members of his offensive unit, "Guys, you've got to love it. I mean, here we are. It's right here. Let's have fun, let's go down, make some plays and win this ballgame." The Jaguars did exactly that, thanks in part to Del Rio's gutsy call to have David Garrard run a quarterback draw on fourth-and-two. Thirty-two yards later, the Jags were in position for the decisive points. Of course, Del Rio can't be let off the hook for Jacksonville blowing such a huge lead. Although his defense has suffered some key injuries, the defensive-minded coach needed to do a better job preventing the plays that allowed the Steelers' dramatic rally.

8. Norv Turner, San Diego: His 2-1 postseason record doesn't offer us much to evaluate. His poor head-coaching record prior to his arrival in San Diego in '07 and the Chargers' struggles through the first half of the season seemed to confirm the worst fears that the team made a big mistake by firing Marty Schottenheimer after last year's 14-2 finish. However, Turner deserves his share of credit for the Chargers' ending the year with a six-game winning streak and he did do a good job of leading them to a wild-card victory over the relentless and highly physical Tennessee Titans.

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