Risk has its rewards for coaches

Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith reacts during

Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith reacts during the second half of an NFC divisional playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks. (Jan. 13, 2013) (Credit: AP)

FOXBORO, Mass.

If we've learned anything from the four teams that advanced to the NFL's conference finals on Sunday, it is this: The coaches for each of the four teams faced crossroads decisions that carried major risks. All four used the courage of their convictions to embrace those risks and overcame those issues to get to within a win of the Super Bowl.

The results are unequivocal: At a time when bold action was required, even in the face of unrelenting criticism and second-guessing, the coaches went with their gut instincts and made the right calls.

Even if it took some time for the decisions to be validated.

For 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, it was taking a calculated gamble to stick with second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick, even after Alex Smith recovered from a concussion he suffered in the 10th game of the regular season. It was a huge move and was second-guessed relentlessly, but Harbaugh stuck by his plan, even though Smith nearly got the 49ers to the Super Bowl last season.

Kaepernick, who went 5-2 in seven regular-season starts, starred in the 49ers' 45-31 win over the Packers in the NFC divisional playoff round. He went 17-for-31 for 263 yards, passing for two touchdowns, and ran for 181 yards and two touchdowns.

The 49ers' opponent on Sunday, the Falcons, went into the playoffs as the top seed in the NFC, but also with a playoff albatross: In the Mike Smith-Matt Ryan era, they were 0-3 in playoff games. But despite playing against a Seahawks defense that allowed the fewest points per game (15.3) during the regular season, the Falcons attacked with the same style of football they'd been using all season.

There was no going conservative for Smith and Ryan, as the Falcons used the long pass throughout the game against Seattle's highly regarded secondary. And even after the Seahawks mounted a furious fourth-quarter comeback to take a 28-27 lead, Ryan prevailed. On the final drive, with 25 seconds left, he drove the Falcons from their 28 to get in position for Matt Bryant's game-winning field goal in a 30-28 win.

For Ravens coach John Harbaugh, Jim's brother, it was firing longtime offensive coordinator Cam Cameron on Dec. 11 and replacing him with quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell 13 games into the season. Harbaugh called it the most difficult football decision he has ever made but believed it had to be done to reinvigorate the offense, which bogged down after Cameron refused to use a more balanced approach to help quarterback Joe Flacco.

The result: The Ravens have shown dramatic improvement on offense and earned a repeat trip to the AFC Championship Game with a stirring 38-35 double-overtime win over the Broncos. Flacco sent the game into overtime with a 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones near the end of regulation.

And don't forget how Harbaugh's opposing coach reacted in the final seconds of the fourth quarter. Believing that the Broncos were so rocked by Flacco's touchdown pass that they needed to gather themselves, John Fox had Peyton Manning take a knee on the ensuing possession. No matter that the Broncos had the ball at their 20-yard line with 31 seconds to play and two timeouts. Bottom line: Fox played not to lose in that situation . . . and he lost.

The Patriots? Well, you might think Bill Belichick didn't have to worry about any major decisions with his AFC East juggernaut, but he did make a controversial move at the trade deadline, acquiring cornerback Aqib Talib from the Buccaneers.

Talib, whose myriad off-field problems prompted his ouster in Tampa, still had a game left on a four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances. The trade allowed Devin McCourty, who had struggled in pass coverage, to move from cornerback to safety, and the Patriots' defense has been vastly improved since.

The Patriots have reduced third-down success by opponents from 43 percent to 30, lowered the number of passes of at least 20 yards from 4.7 per game to 3.3 and allowed only one completion of more than 40 yards since a Week 11 win over the Colts.

The secondary baffled Texans quarterback Matt Schaub in last week's divisional playoff win.

Four teams left standing, all of whom have operated with a three-word motto that has served them well: Go for it.

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