- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 12, 2006

The coaches with more big-game experience went 4-0 in last weekend’s wild-card round.

Washington’s Joe Gibbs (three Super Bowl championships) bested Tampa Bay’s Jon Gruden (one). New England’s Bill Belichick, whose team has won three of the past four titles, got the better of Jacksonville’s Jack Del Rio, who was coaching in his first playoff game.

Pittsburgh’s Bill Cowher, who has guided a team to a Super Bowl, defeated Marvin Lewis of Cincinnati, who was in command for the first time in postseason. Carolina’s John Fox, another Super Bowl veteran, blanked the New York Giants’ Tom Coughlin, who never has gotten that far.

If that pattern repeats this weekend, Belichick will top Denver’s Mike Shanahan and his two titles, Gibbs will beat Seattle’s Mike Holmgren (one title), Cowher will upset Indianapolis’ Tony Dungy, who hasn’t reached the big dance, and Fox will get by Chicago and its coach, playoff neophyte Lovie Smith.

Gibbs is the only one of those Super Bowl coaches on the road this weekend who beat his host this season, beating Seattle 20-17 at FedEx Field on Oct. 2. Denver got by New England 28-20 on Oct. 16, but receiver Rod Smith knows the Patriots are a different team in postseason.

“They’re like the Yankees were a few years ago when they beat up on everybody all the time,’ Smith said. “They’re not going to beat themselves. In order to give yourself a chance to win, you’ve got to play great. You can’t play good or you don’t win.’

Cowher’s team is confident enough to talk trash about the high-flying Colts who thrashed them 26-7 on Nov.28 in Indianapolis.

“They don’t want to just sit there, line up and play football,” Steelers linebacker Joey Porter said. “They want to try to catch you off guard. They don’t want to play smash-mouth football. They want to trick you. They want to catch you substituting. They want to make you think. They want it to be a thinking game instead of a football game.”

Jake Delhomme is going against the NFL’s stingiest defense in Chicago, but Carolina’s quarterback is 4-1 in the postseason — losing only Super Bowl XXXVIII by a whisker — with a superb 105.1 passer rating.

In any case, each conference championship game is guaranteed to have a coach with a Lombardi Trophy on his resume. That will be the ninth such occurrence in the 36 seasons since the AFL-NFL merger but the first time since 1992, when San Francisco’s George Seifert and Miami’s Don Shula got teams to the conference title game. Shula also figured into the mix in 1984, when his Dolphins made the AFC title game and Bill Walsh’s 49ers made it to the NFC game. It also happened in 1973, 1975, 1977, 1978, 1982 and 1983.

Awards time — Here are my best of 2005 as a voter for the Pro Football Writers of America and the Associated Press:

MVP: Shaun Alexander, Seahawks; defensive MVP: Brian Urlacher, Bears; rookie of the year: Cadillac Williams, Buccaneers; defensive rookie: Shawne Merriman, Chargers; coach of the year: Lovie Smith, Bears; comeback player: Steve Smith, Panthers; most improved player: Kyle Vanden Bosch, Titans; executive of the year: Tim Ruskell, Seahawks; assistant coach of the year: Bob Bratkowski, Bengals.

My All-Pro offense includes: Colts quarterback Peyton Manning; Alexander and the Chiefs’ Larry Johnson at the running backs; receivers Smith and Santana Moss of the Redskins; tight end Antonio Gates and fullback Lorenzo Neal of the Chargers; tackles Walter Jones of the Seahawks and Willie Anderson of the Bengals; guards Steve Hutchinson of the Seahawks and Brian Waters of the Chiefs; and Colts center Jeff Saturday.

My All-Pro defense includes: ends Osi Umenyiora of the Giants and Vanden Bosch of the Titans; tackles Marcus Stroud of the Jaguars and Jamal Williams of the Chargers; inside linebackers Urlacher of the Bears and Al Wilson of the Broncos; outside linebackers Derrick Brooks of the Bucs and Lance Briggs of the Bears; cornerbacks Champ Bailey of the Broncos and Ken Lucas of the Panthers; and safeties Troy Polamalu of the Steelers and Bob Sanders of the Colts.

My special-teamers are Cardinals kicker Neil Rackers, Bills punter Brian Moorman, return specialist Jerome Mathis of the Texans and two Redskins: coverage maniac Mike Sellers and snapper Ethan Albright.

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