By Steve Silverman
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The four coaches involved in this Sunday’s AFC and NFC Conference Championship games are all on the cusp of reaching the Super Bowl. The title is within reach.
While Bill Belichick is the most accomplished of the group with three previous Super Bowl titles and five appearances in the game as a head coach, Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano is more than capable of figuring out a game plan that could give his team a legitimate chance to defeat the heavily favored Patriots.
In this column, we look at the responsibilities of each of the four head coaches and the main things their teams will need to achieve in order to come up with a victory — and have a chance to play for the Lombardi Trophy.
Mike McCarthy, Green Bay Packers
The top priority for McCarthy is the selling job he must give to his team. Publicly, the Packers’ Week 1 loss — 36-16 at Seattle — would seem to have little to do with an NFC Championship game more than four months later. However, the Packers know they can’t gloss over that game since the Seahawks whipped them so thoroughly on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
The Packers are a much stronger team now and they must find a way to make the battle in the trenches much closer than it was in the first meeting. While all the offensive linemen have to do a better job, rookie center Corey Linsley and guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang are going to have to play their best games of the year to give Aaron Rodgers adequate protection. McCarthy must get into their heads and make sure they realize that there can be no slip-ups.
Rodgers is the best and most accurate quarterback in the game, but his balky left calf means he is going to need as much help as he can if he is going to puncture the Seattle defense. His interior protection must be stellar.
McCarthy also has to get into the heads of running back Eddie Lacy and offensive coordinator Tom Clements to stick with the running game even if the Seahawks have success early in the game. If the Packers abandon the run as they did in the opener, Seattle will be able to impose its will and turn Green Bay into a one-dimensional offense.
Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks
Carroll is widely perceived as a player’s coach who wants his team to be in a great state of mind so they can play their best game.
There’s a lot more to his coaching than that feel-good aspect of the game. He is an excellent defensive strategist and tactician, and while defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is one of the hot, young head coaching candidates, don’t sell Carroll short here.
In particular, he is going to find a way to shut down either Jordy Nelson or Randall Cobb. The Packers’ two big-play receivers are capable of jolting Seattle’s Legion of Boom with their speed and collective athleticism, but Carroll will position his defensive backs to take one of them away while punishing the other after catches.
Carroll will also stay in the ear of quarterback Russell Wilson and let reinforce the message to not give the Packers any opportunities with needless turnovers.
Chuck Pagano, Indianapolis Colts
Few coaches in the game have the ability to reach their players with an emotional pregame speech like Pagano. While that aspect of the game is often overrated and romanticized, Pagano’s players have been fighting for him since the 2012 season when he had to leave the team to fight his battle with leukemia.
Pagano’s players want to win for him, but he has to find a way for Andrew Luck to attack New England’s defense. The Colts have been hammered by the Pats in each of the last two years, and Luck has regularly attempted to make the intermediate and deep throw into coverage. Luck has changed his game plan in recent weeks as he has been taking what the defense has been giving him.
Bill Belichick will almost certainly try to tempt Luck into throwing the ball into disguised coverages once again. If Pagano can help Luck avoid that fate, the Colts may have a chance to turn this into a 60-minute game.
Bill Belichick, New England Patriots
The best strategist in the history of the game excels at finding weaknesses and exploiting them. New England dominated the Colts in Indianapolis with Jonas Gray and the running game, and the Pats will attempt to rock the them with a between-the-tackles attack once again.
Belichick will be fully prepared if the Colts have improved in that area. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is the best player at his position and Indianapolis does not have a safety who can stay with him. Going to the tight end is an obvious strategy.
Look for speedy and explosive Brandon LaFell to play a key role in this game. He is a first-rate downfield blocker who will sell out to help the running game and Gronkowski succeed. He can also serve as a deep threat who can make the sudden big play to rip the heart out of the Indianapolis defense.