Playoffs provide coaching lessons

While there are some surprise teams in the conference championship games, their coaching staffs learned from the regular season and applied those lessons to playoff game-planning.

Watching three of four home teams lose in the Divisional Playoffs was about far more than teams simply "getting hot" at the right time. It has much more to do with good coaching staffs using the regular season to determine what their teams do best - and what they need to do to win in the postseason.

Arizona wasn't misjudged when experts pegged the Cardinals as a mediocre team that won a bad division. But coach Ken Whisenhunt changed his approach just in time. He reinserted veteran running back Edgerrin James in the regular-season finale, and the Cardinals have been a far different team all-around the past three weeks.

It goes beyond running the ball better. The threat of a ground game has improved pass protection for quarterback Kurt Warner, created more man coverage downfield and allowed the Cardinals to hold the ball longer and keep their defense fresh.

The Cardinals were a very mediocre 9-7 team during the regular season, but the coaching staff made a critical change just in time that has the team one win from playing in the Super Bowl.

Arizona will play host to the NFC Championship Game against a similarly hot Philadelphia team. After too often abandoning the run - and temporarily abandoning quarterback Donovan McNabb - during the regular season, coach Andy Reid has started to press all the right buttons.

He's giving running back Brian Westbrook consistent touches, and even getting the ball more into the hands of backup Correll Buckhalter. Reid has even adjusted his play-calling to improve the Eagles' performance on the short-yardage situations that plagued them throughout the regular season.

Pittsburgh was the only team coming off a bye week to win over the weekend. And without that week off, it's unlikely they'd be playing next weekend.

Not only did quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have time to properly recover from a concussion, but running back Willie Parker was able to get as healthy as he has been all season. The ground game was instrumental in handling San Diego comfortably, as Parker's 146 yards was just seven shy of the franchise's single-game postseason record.

The Steelers were finally able to pound away on the ground, which helped mask their deficiencies in pass protection. And working off play-action enabled Roethlisberger to take several vertical shots in the passing game.

Out of the four teams remaining, only Baltimore is plodding the same course it has all season. But the Ravens have continued to tinker with their backfield tandem of Le'Ron McClain and Willis McGahee, and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has increasingly trusted rookie quarterback Joe Flacco to make tough throws in critical situations.

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