These postseason losers can transform their reputations

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Denver coach Mike Shanahan hasn't won a playoff game since John Elway retired.

Philadelphia has lost three consecutive NFC championship games under Andy Reid. And, in the past decade under Bill Cowher, Pittsburgh has lost three AFC title games on its home turf.

Seattle coach Mike Holmgren hasn't won a playoff game since his days in Green Bay, and Mike Tice's past two teams in Minnesota have finished the regular season with identical 3-7 slides.

Delve deep enough into the history of any NFL coach and you'll find losses that are disappointing, humiliating, lopsided and inexplicable. But this season's playoff field has an unusually high number of coaches defined as much by their losses as their victories.

"All the criticism - if you're a man, it bothers you," Tice said. "Yeah, it bothers me. [I'd be lying] if I said: 'Oh, no, that doesn't bother me. It doesn't bother me that I'm called Coach Collapse. It doesn't bother me that we're making mistakes on offense.' But what are we going to do about it? That's the key, and until we do something about it, it's going to be there. That's just reality, whether I like it or not."

There's enough reality to go around.

Tony Dungy? His Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl the season he became coach of the Indianapolis Colts. Mike Sherman? It was under his watch that Green Bay suffered its first playoff defeat at Lambeau Field. Mike Martz? His St. Louis Rams helped launch Tom Brady's career when the New England quarterback directed the game-winning drive in the Super Bowl three years ago.

And then there's San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer, whose Chargers today play host to the New York Jets in a wild-card game. His Cleveland Browns lost championship games by a combined eight points to Denver in 1986 and '87; and he was 3-7 in the playoffs as coach of the Kansas City Chiefs.

"My approach to it is that you can't hide from it," Schottenheimer said of his 5-11 record in postseason games. "It is what it is. We have not been nearly as effective in the playoffs as I would like to have been. But again, there's no redo's. We lost some close ones, some tough ones."

In the next month, Schottenheimer and others have a chance to redefine their careers, to wrap their hands around the Lombardi Trophy that has eluded them so long. Yes, Holmgren already has won a Super Bowl and Shanahan has won two. And great coaches and players have retired without a ring. Buffalo's Marv Levy, a four-time Super Bowl loser, "choked" all the way to the Hall of Fame, and he'll soon be joined there by quarterback Dan Marino, who never reached the NFL mountaintop.

But in at least one city this season, nothing short of a Super Bowl victory will do. After watching their team fall three consecutive times in the conference title game, Philadelphia fans are fed up with the Eagles' warning-track power. It's win the Super Bowl, or else.

"The coach understands that, and we understand that as players that the only important thing for this organization is to go to the Super Bowl," Philadelphia cornerback Sheldon Brown said. "Anything else and this has not been a good season for this team. We understand that."

The Eagles are the first team in league history to host the conference championship game in consecutive seasons and fail to reach the Super Bowl. Almost as a testament to the pressure he must be feeling, Reid decided to rest his best players for the final two games of the regular season, absorbing the losses that came as a result.

The great debate in Philadelphia now is, did Reid do the right thing, or have his Eagles lost momentum heading into the do-or-die stretch of the season? At least Reid had the comfort of knowing his team plays in a watered-down conference in which two 8-8 teams - St. Louis and Minnesota - made the playoffs.

Shanahan doesn't have that luxury. His Broncos play at Indianapolis tomorrow and face Most Valuable Player quarterback Peyton Manning, who scorched them with five touchdown passes in a wild-card game at the RCA Dome last season.

Denver defensive coordinator Larry Coyer, by all accounts a normally subdued man, sounded a bit chafed this week as reporters questioned him about how the Broncos planned to neutralize Manning, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison and the rest of the Colts' offense.

"They are what they are," Coyer snapped. "They're very good. And we are what we are. Now we have to go raise hell and see who wins."

The Super Bowls weren't so long ago that Shanahan forgets the feeling. And he knows their value in defining the legacy of a coach and his players.

"I don't think there's any question if you talk about greatness, it's what you do in the playoffs," the Broncos coach said. "You go through history. How do you separate yourselves if you don't play big in the big games? It's just not the quarterback; it's the supporting cast. Players step up in these situations."

In eight seasons, six of them with Arizona, Denver quarterback Jake Plummer has played in three playoff games. He is 1-2 with three touchdowns and six interceptions.

"You don't talk about many quarterbacks that have not done anything in the playoffs or the Super Bowl," Plummer told reporters. "Obviously, the playoffs are where it is made. That's where you have to perform and play well."

Shanahan was asked this week if it's tougher than ever to be an NFL coach.

"No, I don't think it's tough at all," he said.

Then he paused. "As long as you win."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

NFL playoffs

Today's games

NFC: St. Louis (8-8) at Seattle (9-7), 4:30 p.m., chs. 2, 7. Line: Sea. by 4

AFC: N.Y. Jets (10-6) at San Diego (12-4), 8 p.m., chs. 2, 7. Line: S.D. by 7

Tomorrow's games

AFC: Denver (10-6) at Indianapolis (12-4), 1 p.m., chs. 13, 9. Line: Indy by 10

NFC: Minnesota (8-8) at Green Bay (10-6), 4:30 p.m., chs. 45, 5. Line: G.B. by 6

TODAY'S AFC GAME

Jets (10-6) at Chargers (12-4)

Time, TV: 8 p.m., chs. 2, 7.

Line: Chargers by 7.

Last meeting: Jets won, 34-28, in San Diego on Sept. 19.

Key stat: Jets are second in turnover differential at plus-17, Chargers next at plus-15.

Players to watch: Jets' Curtis Martin, NFL's leading rusher with 1,697 yards, carried 32 times for 119 and two TDs in first meeting. Chargers' LaDainian Tomlinson averaged 3.9 a carry and ran for 17 TDs.

The buzz: Although running backs are stars in this matchup, look for Chargers QB Drew Brees to make big plays. Brees and tight end Antonio Gates can hook up for some big plays.

Pick: Chargers 27, Jets 24.

TODAY'S NFC GAME

Rams (8-8) at Seahawks (9-7)

Time, TV: 4:30 p.m., chs. 2, 7

Line: Seahawks by 4

Last meeting: Rams won, 23-12, in St. Louis on Nov. 14.

Key stat: Rams have won past three meetings.

Players to watch: Rams' Torry Holt had another big regular season with 94 catches, 14.6 average and 10 TDs. Seahawks' Shaun Alexander was second in NFL with 1,696 yards rushing and averaged 4.8 yards a carry.

The buzz: This is replay of NFC West race, which Seahawks won even though they lost both meetings to Rams. Rams are tougher bunch, led by quarterback Marc Bulger, who quietly had fine season (21 TD passes vs. 14 interceptions). Rams' running combination of Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson will be too much.

Pick: Rams 31, Seahawks 27.

- Chicago Tribune

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