Very few people watch pro football to see what the coaches are going to do, but their role on and off the field cannot be overstated, especially heading into a weekend like this. By this stage of the playoffs, coaches have made all of the critical personnel moves, like 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh starting QB Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith. Or his brother, John, having fired Cam Cameron as the Ravens' offensive coordinator and promoting Jim Caldwell to the spot.
Here is a look back at the vital moves each coach has made this season to help his team reach this point.
Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco 49ers
Back in Week 10, the 49ers were tops in the NFC West with a 6-2 record. That's when Alex Smith suffered a concussion against the St. Louis Rams.
Once Smith was healthy again, the choice was between Colin Kaepernick, who was thought to have a much higher ceiling, and Smith, who (at least at the time) was supposed to have the higher floor. This is the same Alex Smith who then had the second-highest rating in the NFL -- but who, last season, turned in a woeful NFC title game performance, resulting in a home loss to the Giants.
Since becoming the starter, Kaepernick has beaten both New Orleans and New England on the road, and Green Bay at home in the post-season -- i.e., he now has wins over Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. His 181 rushing yards versus the Packers set the all-time single-game regular or postseason record for rushing yards by a QB.
On Sunday, Atlanta will present another challenge, but one thing appears to be clear: Harbaugh made the correct decision. With Kaepernick at the controls, San Francisco converted 8 of 13 third-down chances against the Packers; Smith and his offense converted just 5 of 28 over his two playoff games last season.
Bill Belichick, New England Patriots
Belichick has been criticized this season for going for fourth-down conversions in questionable spots, but his offensive genius has also resulted in the dynamic 1-2 backfield threat of Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. New England, at least with Brady, is never going to be mistaken for a running team, but both Ridley and Vereen have dramatically improved the threat of play-action while proving to be sound red-zone threats.
This season, the Pats rank a respectable 7th in the league in rushing with Ridley and his nearly 1,300 yards. Baltimore overcame all odds to win in Denver because it was able to shut down the Broncos' running game. When Knowshon Moreno went down, Ronnie Hillman was thwarted. If the Ravens cannot contain the rushing attack, this game will get away from them in a hurry. Brady is one of the most efficient play-action quarterbacks in NFL history, and nobody knows that better than Belichick.
John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens
During his five-year tenure with the Ravens, the other Harbaugh is 54-26 and has three AFC Championship Game appearances. He took a risk when he fired longtime offensive coordinator Cam Cameron on Dec. 10 and promoted Jim Caldwell, the quarterback coach, to the role. Since then, Joe Flacco has flourished, tossing nine touchdowns in four games (he sat out Week 17 versus Cincinnati).
In addition, Baltimore has recommitted itself to the running game, specifically to all-world back Ray Rice, who had a season-high 30 carries against Denver last week. One of the main complaints under Cameron was that Rice was not getting enough touches. During a critical two-game losing stretch, he carried the ball a mere 32 times. With Caldwell calling the plays, the offense has averaged over 450 yards per game, with a superb balance of both passing and rushing having replaced Cameron's hyper-conservative style.
Mike Smith, Atlanta Falcons
Before last Sunday's win over Seattle, Smith had been 0-3 in his postseason career with the Falcons, by a combined deficit of 55 points. But his commitment to running the football, even throughout the noted struggles of RB Michael Turner, has proven instrumental to Atlanta's success, leading them to the top seed in the NFC. Together, Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers combined to rush for over 150 yards per game and an average 6.7 yards per rush. The result? A balanced offense led by Matt Ryan, who consistently plays from third-and-short or -medium. The strategy has paid off, and the Falcons are now one home win away from the Super Bowl.