GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) - Tom Coughlin was halfway out the coaching door heading into this season. Two games and two losses into the schedule, he barely had a toehold on his job.
On Sunday, Coughlin will be coaching for a spot in the Super Bowl.
The New York Giants' head man has maneuvered around and even driven through some huge potholes on the way to the NFC championship game. When the Giants were 0-2 and coming off a lopsided home loss to the Green Bay Packers - their opponent for the conference title - the Coughlin Countdown was in full force.
Now, the countdown to a contract extension is on.
``He's done a lot for us this year,'' 1,000-yard rusher Brandon Jacobs said. ``A lot of guys have really warmed up to him. We're playing good football, and that's what we need.''
What they needed when they were 0-2 was a quick turnaround. In the past, Coughlin might have come down even harder on his players. But he learned from New York's spiraling from 6-2 to 8-8 in 2006, followed by a first-round playoff exit.
So Coughlin, who formed an 11-member advisory committee of veteran players this year, kept the communication lines open. He sought input from those around him, and the Giants responded with a six-game winning streak on the way to a 10-6 season and wild-card berth.
And they've won nine straight road games, including at Tampa and Dallas in the postseason.
``I think Tom has done a great job with that, really keeping us focused game in and game out,'' punter Jeff Feagles said. ``We do look at the big picture, but every week we look at the small picture and we just keep going.
``We have become a closer team. I think we all believed in each other after we started 0-2 and then ran off six in a row. When we got those six wins, everyone realized we have something special here.''
As they seem to in Green Bay. In fact, tight end Bubba Franks, now in his eighth season, saw it in training camp last summer.
He noted how coach Mike McCarthy, in his second year at the helm after more than a decade as an offensive assistant in various league outposts, made some necessary alterations to the offense.
``We adjusted a little bit to fit the players we had, and that's important from a coach,'' Franks said. ``They went back and self-scouted and did enough to make it all work. I could see that in camp. I knew coming into this season the offense could take off.''
McCarthy's best work was in persuading Brett Favre to rein in some of his riverboat gambler tendencies. But his stamp has been on every aspect of the Packers, who won their final four games of 2006 to finish 8-8, then went 13-3 during the season, 7-1 at Lambeau Field, before beating Seattle here last weekend.
``You feel like he cares about you as a person instead of just what you're out there doing for him,'' defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins said. ``Since he came in here, the atmosphere's just been great. Everybody's been closer, the team is closer. He's led us in what we feel is a good way.''
McCarthy's main success before being hired by Green Bay was as a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator. Coughlin built the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars into an AFC power in the late 1990s, getting to two AFC title games.
Neither seemed prime for so much success this season, though. The Packers are extremely young, and Favre had little familiarity with many of his receivers. Their running backs corps was depleted by injuries from the outset of the schedule until Ryan Grant, acquired in a trade with the Giants last summer, rescued it.
A wild-card run probably was the most anyone rightfully could have expected when the season kicked off.
Instead, the Packers have been the biggest success story in the NFC, and the players give lots of credit to their coach.
``He has his times where here's going to say this is the way we're going to do something. And you have to respect that because he's the coach, and we listen to him,'' Jenkins said. ``But he will listen to us, he will take into account how we're feeling, what the team may be going through.
``We feel like maybe one of the reasons we've been able to turn it on so big later in the season is because of the training camp we had this year, the way he took care of us in training camp. It's one of those things you appreciate, stuff like that, and you want to win for him.''
The kinder, gentler - well, at least somewhat - Coughlin also has drawn praise. Not to mention quite a response on the field.
``This is not about me, it is about our team, it is about the New York Giants, it is about our players and our coaches, and the challenge that you get each week in the National Football League, and the attempt to lead your team successfully each time out,'' he said. ``That is what this is all about, it is not about me.''
Sorry, Tom, but a lot of it is about you and the way you've gone from near-outcast to nearing the Super Bowl.
``I would rather play for coach Coughlin than anybody else because he knows what we are like,'' said Jacobs, who replaced Coughlin's main locker room adversary of the past, the retired Tiki Barber, in the starting lineup. ``He came in and it takes some time for guys to warm up to every coach, it doesn't matter who it is. I think guys have come to that point where everyone is used to coach and the way he does things, so we're just playing football, and we're playing to win.''

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