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Stubborn belief tarnished Lovie’s image, then repaired it

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

‘‘Exasperation’’ best describes the situation Lovie Smith found himself in at the end of last season. Fans were exasperated by his steadfast belief that things would suddenly improve after the Bears missed the playoffs for three straight seasons. And Smith was exasperated by the widely held belief that nothing would change as long as he remained head coach.

Good fortune is the popular explanation for why the Bears are hosting the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field on Sunday, and while there’s little doubt Lady Luck has worn navy and orange this season, a convincing case can be built for Smith as coach of the year based on the Bears’ ability to exceed expectations alone.

Mike McCarthy is another solid candidate in a crowded field. The Packers’ coach has had to deal with myriad issues, an injury-depleted roster chief among them. The biggest difference between what these NFC North coaches have accomplished is that many expected the Packers to reach the NFL’s final four, while Smith and the Bears have crashed the party.

Asked if Smith is in line for the award, Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said, ‘‘I don’t see how he couldn’t be. We were picked to be 5-11, 6-10 — last in our division — by all the experts. The guys who know what they are talking about picked us to be last, so I think he should be.’’

Smith had lost the confidence of fans with a 23-25 record in the three seasons after Super Bowl XLI, but he remained convinced he had a potentially championship-caliber team. What sounded like wishful thinking when the Bears lost three of four heading into their Week 8 bye is now reality.

Perhaps Smith’s greatest achievement is how hard this team has played and how unselfish players have been. Running backs haven’t complained about a lack of carries, and receivers haven’t grumbled about too few catches. Members of a star-studded defense don’t care who makes the plays as long as they result in victory.

The Bears have had a quiet confidence, an unmistakable we-know-we’re-good-even-if-you-don’t attitude that has fueled their success throughout this surprising season.

‘‘I give him a huge amount of credit,’’ cornerback Charles Tillman said. ‘‘I don’t think anyone gave us a chance but the people in this building. We believe in ourselves. He believed in us more than anybody, and he told us that all season long. All through the offseason and all season long, he said, ‘Our mission is to win a world championship.’ We’re so close to obtaining that goal.’’

The Packers have gone 40-24 under McCarthy the last four seasons, tied with the New York Giants for the best record in the NFC during that span. McCarthy never has faced a challenge like the one he faced this year when six starters were lost for the season and 14 players went on injured reserve.

The flash point came after back-to-back overtime losses to the Washington Redskins and Miami Dolphins in October. Instead of using the injuries as an excuse, the Packers won five of six. They nearly beat the New England Patriots while using backup quarterback Matt Flynn when Aaron Rodgers was sidelined with a concussion. They won their final two games, including the regular-season finale against the Bears, to clinch a playoff spot.

‘‘[McCarthy] kept us level-headed, kept our eye on the ultimate goal and just taking it one step at a time,’’ linebacker Clay Matthews said. ‘‘Obviously, each week it’s to get a win and ultimately to make the playoffs and continue to win. He’s done a great job, and at times he is underappreciated, but we don’t take him for granted. He does a great job of keeping this team together and putting us in advantageous positions to win games, and that’s what we’ve continued to do.’’

Smith and McCarthy have their teams peaking heading into Sunday’s historic showdown, which should place them high on a list of at least a half-dozen candidates for the coaching award. Too bad postseason performance isn’t taken into consideration. This year, at least, choosing the winning coach from the NFC title game might be the best way to decide it.

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