What Coaches Are Feeling The Heat In The NFL Playoffs?

The Notebook has taken the last two days and looked at both the offenses and defenses of the remaining NFL playoff teams. Today let’s look at the coaches, but with a different twist. Which one has the most pressure on them conming into this weekend? We’re not talking about the pressure to win or lose your job, but the need to avoid making “He can’t win the big one”, or “He’s lost the ability to win the big one” to become a dominant storyline between now and this time next year. Here’s the rundown…

Bill Belichick (New England): The pressure on Belichick to win a playoff game has been lingering all year, ever since his team walked off its homefield last January having been upset by the New York Jets. Now, with a second straight #1 seed and a favorable draw with Denver coming in rather than Pittsburgh, New England simply has to win this game. Look, I think it’s a ridiculous that a man with four AFC titles and three Super Bowl rings has to prove he can win playoff games, but if we’re evaluating the pressure cooker, I’ve already seen plenty of reminders that New England’s last postseason win was the 2007 AFC Championship over San Diego. If Tim Tebow pulls another rabbit out of his hat, it will be an excruciatingly long offseason for the Patriots.

Mike McCarthy (Green Bay): I think there’s more pressure in this round than people might realize. If McCarthy loses to a 9-7 Giants’ team that means he’s only 1-2 in home playoff games at a place where homefield is considered to be as big as anywhere. The heat won’t get super-intense, but there will be some notes that McCarthy basically had one good playoff run last year and otherwise has blown winnable situations. For the record, I don’t think this necessarily applies to a potential game with the Saints next week, just because New Orleans has so much respect.

John Harbaugh (Baltimore): He’s coached seven playoff games in his three years as head coach. All of them have been on the road and Harbaugh is 4-3. But he hasn’t been to a Super Bowl yet and now his nemesis in Pittsburgh is out of the way, he’s got a bye and a home game and a third-string quarterback coming to town. With that in place though come expectations and a heavy dose of pressure. Harbaugh has to win on Sunday against Houston.

Jim Harbaugh (San Francisco): There’s zero pressure here. After turning San Francisco into a 13-3 team and then drawing a hot New Orleans team, no one will think the less of the Niner Harbaugh if they lose on Saturday.

Gary Kubiak (Houston): The Texans’ coach got the monkey off his back when he first won the AFC South and then eliminated Cincinnati in the first round. If they even play competitively in Baltimore, people will note the Texans overcame injuries to their top two quarterbacks, Mario Williams and played most of the year without Andre Johnson and give Kubiak a break. As well they should.

Sean Payton (New Orleans): Because expectations are so high for the Saints, there’s a little bit of heat here, but Payton was able to get rid of the demons of last year’s playoff loss in Seattle with the win over Detroit last Saturday night. And he’s got that Super Bowl ring in his back pocket which should buy him a little more time. I’d put his pressure level a little below McCarthy’s, if only because New Orleans has to go on the road.

John Fox (Denver): There’s no pressure anymore, not after the miracle finish to win the AFC West and then a bigger miracle to beat Pittsburgh. But a word of warning—the pressure on Fox will elevate fast after this year. His last playoff appearance in Carolina ended in a disaster when Jake Delhomme threw five interceptions and Kurt Warner picked them apart. Fox can’t allow recollections of that to start surfacing. Last week’s win went a long way toward burying them and he’ll get an easy reprieve for a loss in Foxboro.

Tom Coughlin (NY Giants): Coughlin met his pressure test last week when he beat Atlanta, and I can’t imagine he needs to beat Green Bay in Lambeau Field. Where I’d be curious to see the reaction is if the Giants lose badly. Remember, New York only went 9-7 and Coughlin is one of those coaches who seems to be perpetually on a hot seat. As long as they play it as competitively as they did the regular season game (a 38-35 GB win), the New York boss will be okay.

When we talk about the pressure to win playoff games, there’s two things that irritate me. The first is that we even have to have the conversation. Without exception, all of these coaches have done the job in a parity-driven league to compete and get their teams to within two wins of a Super Bowl. But it did give me something to write about today, so maybe I shouldn’t gripe too much.

The  second irritant is that we give no credit to coaches whose teams earn first-round byes. For example, we can cut Payton, Coughlin, Fox and Kubiak credit for a “winning a playoff game”, while Belichick apparently still has to prove he can and McCarthy wants to avoid the subject even coming up. If we expanded the playoffs and had New England play Tennessee or the Jets in the first round, would that somehow prove a point? Or if Green Bay got rid of Dallas or Arizona? Playoff records are misleading when you don’t factor in the de facto “win” that four coaches earn in advance.