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Giants' Coughlin still whistling past the critics

Some of the NFL's greatest coaches were unmistakable in presence.

Hear a gruff voice while watching a 1960's era NFL Films marathon: It's Green Bay���s Vince Lombardi. See the outline of a hat atop an angular and expressionless face: It's Dallas' Tom Landry. Notice a jutting chin at the end of a powerful jaw line: It's Pittsburgh���s Bill Cowher.

And come Feb. 5 in Indianapolis, another signature look joins the honor roll. But no, it's not the somber-looking chap in the navy blue hooded sweatshirt. Instead, welcome New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin to the fraternity for his own go-to facial expression: Middle-aged man with Type A personality with a look resembling someone smelling raw sewage.

Of course, if things go well for Big Blue over 60 on-field minutes at Lucas Oil Stadium, Coughlin resume will have a new line that reads a lot sweeter than his face might project:

Two-time Super Bowl champion.

Perhaps a fitting reward for a sturdy 16-year veteran of the league's short- term sidelines, complete with 142 regular-season wins, nine playoff appearances in two cities and as improbable as a championship run as there's been -- the one that ended with the 10-6 Giants defeating the 16-0 New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII four years ago.

And surely a far cry from the epitaphs flung in Coughlin direction as recently as two months ago, when a 6-2 start crumbled into a 6-6 crevasse and prompted some to boldly forecast an imminent demise.

"Tom Coughlin has no choice but to reconnect with his team this week, and find something, anything, to restore its credibility," ESPNNewYork columnist Ian O���Connor wrote in late November. "If he fails, Coughlin is not going to lose only his cool or his mind. He is going to lose his job."

The piece ran under the hindsight-unfortunate headline of "Coughlin can't weather another collapse."

"For winning that epic Super Bowl, and for standing among the best coaches in franchise history, Coughlin will always have the memories," O'Connor continued.

"Those will be his parting gifts."

But if anyone expected the 65-year-old native of upstate New York to channel North Jersey stadium co-habitant Rex Ryan and mock the media for getting it so far wrong on him yet again -- they don't know Coughlin.

Because it's simply not his style.

"Staying the course, never saying never," he instead said when asked for the mental mantra that propelled him through the latest bout of tough times. Trying to encourage at every point throughout the season, whether it was good or bad, not denying the facts, but nevertheless seeing that we had a talented team and believing in that team.

"Thinking that if we could only get all of these pieces together, maybe we would have a chance to make ourselves recognized. I felt like we were always in contention to win the division, even when things weren't going as well as we'd have liked them."

As it turned out, while Ryan's self-promoting talk petered out as the crosstown-rival Jets crumbled from 7-5 to 8-8, Coughlin steered the Giants to three wins in their last four regular-season tests while capturing a chaotic NFC East and parlaying it into a New England rematch in Super Bowl XLVI following January defeats of seeds No. 5 (Atlanta), No. 1 (Green Bay) and No. 2 (San Francisco), respectively, in the conference.

The Giants' present run is at least vaguely reminiscent of 2007, when while the Patriots were laying waste to foes in record-setting fashion, Coughlin's team trudged along under the spotlight in losing their first two games, then winning six straight and splitting the final eight en route to a 10-6 finish and an NFC Wild Card berth.

That time around, they strung together road playoff defeats of fourth-seeded Tampa Bay, top-seeded Dallas and No. 2 Green Bay -- an NFC Championship Game noteworthy as Brett Favre's final one as a Packer -- before beating the Patriots at Arizona's University of Phoenix Stadium on Eli Manning's fade- route touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress with 35 second left.

It was a nice celebration to a surely epic comeback. But when the Giants failed to replicate their postseason success a year later, then missed the tournament altogether in successive seasons in 2009 and 2010, the keyboard- wielding jackals returned.

While composing a 2011 preview for the Giants, ESPN columnist Dan Graziano fired this verbal warning shot:

"Coughlin survived the collapse of 2009, and the fact that the team won 10 games [in 2010] certainly helped him survive last season's lack of a playoff appearance. But if these Giants bottom out (as their lack of depth could lead them to do), one must wonder if the team will go in another direction at coach, or even if Coughlin might decide to go in a different direction himself.

A bad year in New York could bring about change at a number of spots for the Giants."

Again, well...let's just say reports of the demise were a bit premature.

And the whole debate is enough to make Giants defensive end Justin Tuck laugh.

"This might be the defining career season for him," Tuck said of Coughlin. "I don't see why he wouldn't be the top candidate for Coach of the Year considering the pressure that's on him in New York. It is definitely the type of city that's about 'what have you done for me lately'? And it just seems every year Coach Coughlin's job is up for grabs.

"I know it's a lot of pressure on him and he's always not really wavering either way. You really couldn't tell if he's a coach that has won four Super Bowls in a row or a coach that is on the hot seat all season. He stays even- keeled and kind of stuck to his guns, and believed what this team was going to be about. And I think that has trickled downstairs and trickled throughout this entire franchise."

For his part, Coughlin insists the constant tumult has brought his team closer. In fact, he claimed this week that the unit that captured the NFC title with a 20-17 overtime win against the 49ers at Candlestick Park on Jan. 22 was as galvanized as any he's been a part of. That victory, incidentally, came exactly 77 days after New York beat New England by a 24-20 verdict at Gillette Stadium in Week 9 of the 2011 regular season.

"I understand young people and all that goes with that, but these guys have been able to really create a very strong business-like approach to what they're doing," Coughlin said. "Whether you use the word fellowship or whatever word you want to use, there's a strong, strong feeling among this group. It's been a great source of pride for all of us as coaches."

The Giants' aforementioned Super Bowl win over the Patriots, by the way, came exactly four years ago on the Friday prior to this year's championship game.