A week dominated by coaching changes in the NFL now reverts to football, with four first-round playoff games over the next two days. And the outcome of Sunday's game in San Francisco may well culminate with another coaching vacancy in a most unlikely place.
Though 49ers Coach Steve Mariucci has taken his team to the playoffs four times in the last six seasons, whispers persist that unless he beats the New York Giants, he may not have a chance to scratch that seven-year itch, at least not in San Francisco. The 49ers say they will discuss his situation only after the season is over, but league sources indicated that a first-round loss could end any talk of a possible contract extension.
Owner John York and General Manager Terry Donahue did not return telephone calls this week, nor did former 49ers coach Bill Walsh, who has never been totally enamored with Mariucci's style or substance and still has a strong influence on the organization as a team consultant. Said one league owner, "I don't think Bill respects the guy."
Meantime, there's a playoff game to prepare for. Mariucci sidestepped the issue in a news conference Wednesday when he said, "We're so entrenched with preparing for a game there's no time to think and to dwell on anything but winning a football game. It's as simple as that. When John and I spoke, we mentioned we would discuss this when we were through playing. Not the regular season, but all of it. I'm glad we haven't spoken about it yet. I hope it's a little later. We're trying to keep playing here and winning and that sort of thing."
There is some coincidence in this coaching matchup because the Giants' Jim Fassel, who took New York to the Super Bowl two years ago, also heard speculation about his future after a 3-4 start. Then he took over the play calling and watched his team win seven of its last nine games, including the last four to get into the playoffs as a wild card.
The biggest victory came Saturday, when the Giants overcame four turnovers and beat the NFC East champion Philadelphia Eagles, 10-7, in overtime. Asked about Mariucci's uncertain situation, Fassel said, "Have you read the New York papers this season? Heck, I was considered out of here. It's just the way it is. Halfway through the season, the media asked how my job could be in jeopardy when after 90 games, I've won more games than Bill Parcells. It's just the way the league is today. If you can't accept it or work under those conditions, then don't be a head coach. It's always been that way."
The teams met an eternity ago, on Sept. 5, with the 49ers winning, 16-13, on a 33-yard catch by Terrell Owens that set up a 36-yard field goal by Jose Cortez, now with the Redskins, with six seconds left. Both teams have changed dramatically since. For the Giants, rookie tight end Jeremy Shockey has blossomed into a Pro Bowl starter and wide receiver Amani Toomer has a career-best 82 catches, eight for touchdowns. For the 49ers, Owens has caught 100 passes, though quarterback Jeff Garcia has struggled at times to maintain consistency.
"I'd like to think our best football is in front of us," Mariucci said. "We've been less than whole with our personnel almost all year. But the best six teams [in the NFC] are still standing, and you have to be on top of your game to win these things."
The "other" team in New York, the Jets, were no better than the Giants at the start of the season, going 2-5. They soared into the playoffs with a 42-17 victory over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, winning the division over Miami and New England on the last Sunday of the regular season.
Their game against the Colts at Giants Stadium today also offers the story line of mentor Tony Dungy of the Colts facing his former Tampa Bay assistant, Jets Coach Herman Edwards -- the only two minority head coaches in the league -- for the first time. The Jets and Edwards were tabloid targets in New York, too, until a victory at San Diego in the eighth game.
"We knew it was a big game for us," said Jets quarterback Chad Pennington, who replaced Vinny Testaverde as the Jets' starter early in the season. "We definitely had a sense of urgency to get the ball rolling in a positive direction. That win gave us some light at the end of the tunnel, knowing that if we just kept focusing, not getting down on ourselves, we could have a chance to turn the season around."
The Jets have done much of it with defense, as well, winning seven of their last nine by outscoring opponents 77-10 in the fourth quarter. They must contain the deadliest passing combination in the league -- quarterback Peyton Manning to wide receiver Marvin Harrison, with a league-record 143 receptions for 1,722 yards.
Footballs may not be flying with that much regularity Saturday night in a prime-time matchup between wild-card Atlanta and NFC North champion Green Bay. The game, perhaps the most entertaining matchup of the weekend, will be played at Lambeau Field, where the Packers have never lost in the playoffs (11-0, and 13-0 in Wisconsin). Temperatures in the mid-twenties are expected, with snow flurries possible.
The Falcons, who played 11 games in domes this season, have a quarterback who still may be able to thrive in such conditions. Michael Vick is the fastest quarterback in NFL history, and could give the Packers problems with his dangerous forays downfield. Vick ran for an NFL-record 777 yards and was intercepted only eight times.
In a Week 1 matchup between the teams, the host Packers won, 37-34, in overtime as quarterback Brett Favre threw for 284 yards and two touchdowns. Favre always thrives in big-game situations, and with a touchdown pass in each of his last 12 playoff games he is one short of an NFL record held by Dan Marino. Originally a Falcons draft choice, Favre is 6-0 in the playoffs when the temperature is 34 degrees or lower.
"I'm very excited about round two," Vick said. "I know it will be tough and cold. I have to manage the game and play within myself and let the other guys do their job. I think we'll have a pretty good shot at beating this team. It's important to start fast, because they have Brett Favre on the other side. When he's on, he's really on, and they're going to be hyped up."
So will the Pittsburgh Steelers, facing the Cleveland Browns in what would appear to be the major mismatch of the weekend. The Steelers have won the teams' last five meetings and nine of the last 10, including two this season. The Steelers, still smarting from last year's loss to New England in the AFC title game, won five of their last six regular season games.
The Browns will be missing quarterback Tim Couch, who broke his leg in a 24-16 victory over the Falcons. He will be replaced by Kelly Holcomb, 1-1 as a starter this season and making his first playoff start. He'll face a Steelers defense that led the AFC with 50 sacks.
Pittsburgh quarterback Tommy Maddox, the NFL's comeback player of the year, was 7-3-1 as a starter after replacing the erratic Kordell Stewart. Maddox has come back from a spinal cord bruise that forced him to miss three starts in mid-November.
"It's a classic," Steelers Coach Bill Cowher said of the 102nd meeting between the teams, but only the second in the playoffs. "It's appropriate we were the first team the Browns played [in 1999] when they came back to open their new stadium. And here we are the first team they play in the playoffs since being re-established. There's such a tradition that exists between these two teams and these two cities. You couldn't match two better teams."