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AFC crown would give Ravens coach Harbaugh recognition he deserves

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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John Harbaugh is 49-23 with the Ravens, yet he's not the more famous Harbaugh brother. (US Presswire)  
John Harbaugh is 49-23 with the Ravens, yet he's not the more famous Harbaugh brother. (US Presswire)  

I know what a victory Sunday would do for New England's Bill Belichick, and so do you. It sends him to his fifth Super Bowl, inflates his playoff record to 17-6 and cements his reputation as one of the best head coaches anywhere, anytime.

What we don't know is what a victory would do for his opponent. I'm talking about Baltimore's John Harbaugh, and tell me there's someone in this weekend's playoffs who is more underrated ... because there's not.

All Harbaugh has done in four seasons with the Ravens is reach the playoffs four times, win at least one postseason game every year, saddle Tom Brady with his first home playoff loss and reach the conference championship game twice.

He is one of the game's most successful head coaches, yet you hear more about younger brother Jim than you do John, and, sorry, that's not right.

I know, Jim raised the Titanic when he turned the 49ers around overnight, putting them in the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and the conference championship game for the first time in 14 seasons. But John never missed the playoffs. Not once. And he has put the Ravens in the AFC championship game twice in four seasons, where they were there only once before.

Ever.

So Harbaugh can win. In fact, since he took over in 2008, his 44-20 regular-season record ranks fourth among the league's head coaches, his 49 overall wins (including the playoffs) tie him for second and his .688 winning percentage ties him with Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin for numero uno among coaches with at least two years' experience. He's also only the fourth coach since the 1970 merger to guide his team to the playoffs in each of his first four seasons.

But the question is: Can he win The Big One? Usually, that means the Super Bowl, but this year's AFC Championship Game qualifies because it's Belichick and Brady and the New England Patriots at home. All those things conspire to make Harbaugh and his team 7½-point underdogs, but I would be careful, people. Harbaugh doesn't go away quietly.

In the 2008 playoffs, he beat top-seeded Tennessee. In 2009, he beat Brady at home. Then, last year, he knocked off AFC West champion Kansas City. All those victories were on the road, which, until last weekend, is where Harbaugh spent his entire postseason.

Harbaugh is 5-3 in the playoffs, with each of his losses to the AFC's Super Bowl representative that season. That's not bad. But it's not his goal or the goal of his football team. Making it to the Super Bowl is, and last time I checked, Harbaugh was waiting on his first trip there with the Ravens.

This is their chance.

"Once the game starts," he said this week, "it's probably, in some ways, just another game. But there's an underlying understanding that the next opportunity is there. It's the AFC Championship Game. In that sense, we understand that, and it's meaningful for that reason, no doubt."

I couldn't agree more. But it's more meaningful for some than others, and John Harbaugh is among the "some." He has won a division title. He has won playoff games. He's going to another conference championship game. In short, he has done everything but move to the next stage, which is the Super Bowl.

Which means the résumé is incomplete.

But to know Harbaugh is to know he doesn't give a rip how the game affects him or how he's perceived. Nope, he's about his players and his team and the organization. But somewhere in there, someone has to acknowledge what the head coach has done, and what he has done is keep the Baltimore Ravens at or near the top of the AFC every season he has been there.

Still, there must be something more, and there is. There's the New England Patriots and Tom Brady and Belichick and their four Super Bowl appearances in the past decade. To conquer all that ... to beat them at home when nobody has beaten them there in a conference championship game ... would gain someone's attention, and my guess is that Harbaugh would be first in line.

"This is huge for John," said one AFC coach who played Harbaugh this season. "He's done everything but this ... this and winning a Super Bowl. So this is big."

People tell me it won't happen. In fact, this coach said he thought the Ravens probably get hammered, primarily because he didn't see them pressuring Brady or stopping the Patriots' offense ... and the generous point spread tells you a lot of people out there agree with him.

So, let's say the Ravens lose, go home and have to start all over again. What does that mean for John Harbaugh?

Well, it probably means more of the same, which is that he's not considered among the game's best and brightest until or unless he clears one more hurdle. That happened with Philadelphia's Andy Reid, who finally gained the recognition he deserved when, after three consecutive misses, he won a conference championship game and graduated to the Super Bowl.

Harbaugh was on that coaching staff, so he knows how difficult the next step can be -- especially with people like Brady and Belichick in your path. But his Ravens have done the improbable this season, like circling the always tough AFC North. They went 6-0 in a division where three of the four teams reached the playoffs. They conquered the defending AFC champions twice, too, and were one of three teams not to lose at home and one of only two not to lose within its division. More important, they are 7-0 vs. teams that made the playoffs this season.

I guess what I'm saying is Baltimore and its head coach are not to be undersold. But that is not enough. Sooner or later, they must move past the AFC championship game to a Super Bowl, and, for Harbaugh's sake, I hope it's sooner.

"He is really, really underrated," our coach said. "But the reason is that he walked into a good situation from the beginning. He had three Hall of Famers [Ed Reed, Ray Lewis and former tackle Jonathan Ogden] who were great for quotes, and he's not outrageous. He's not about making headlines. The only thing he's going to say outrageous is going to be positive.

"He didn't take Baltimore from nothing to something, so he's not going to get the credit he deserves. But the guy's an all-star. And if he wins this game, people will understand."

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