A crowded field of candidates

As good as the battles for playoff sports are, there might be an even more intriguing battle for the NFL's coach of the year.

Think about it. There are six worthy candidates at minimum -- Arizona's Bruce Arians, New England's Bill Belichick, Philadelphia's Chip Kelly, Indianapolis' Chuck Pagano, Kansas City's Andy Reid and Carolina's Ron Rivera -- with one coach's credentials just as impressive as the next.

Arians took a Cardinals team that went into Seattle last December and lost 58-0 and returned there this December to hand the Seahawks their first home loss of the season. Were it not for such a strong, deep playoff field in the NFC, Arians would have the 10-5 Cardinals in the postseason, though his team will make its final stand Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers.

Belichick has basically proved the NFL draft meaningless, coaching up a team Sunday that included an offense that started seven undrafted free agents -- three on the offensive line, both wide receivers, both running backs -- that handed the Baltimore Ravens their worst home loss in franchise history. Belichick has had many great seasons, but this might just be his single-best coaching job.

Kelly has taken his up-tempo style and transformed the offense and entire culture in the Eagles organization, leading a team that finished last season tied with the Detroit Lions for the NFC's worst record to the point at which Philadelphia is 60 minutes away from an NFC East title Sunday night in Dallas.

Pagano has returned from his chemo and led a Colts team that, despite the many questions it has raised, still has beaten the Denver Broncos, Kansas City, Seattle and San Francisco, four of the top teams in the NFL.

Reid has turned the team with the worst record in the league last season into a team that was the last team in the league to lose a game this season and already has clinched a wild-card spot. He has changed the culture in Kansas City as much as Kelly has done it in Philadelphia -- for the better.

In the midst of calls for his job and reports that Carolina had begun a head-coaching search, Rivera led a Panthers team that fell to 1-3 on Oct. 6 on an eight-game winning streak that could culminate in an NFC South title Sunday with a win at Atlanta against the Falcons.

Other candidates have done other great jobs. Pete Carroll has the Seahawks within a win against the Rams from clinching home-field advantage in the NFC on Sunday. Marvin Lewis has led the Cincinnati Bengals to an AFC North title in a division with two teams loaded with Vince Lombardi Trophies. Joe Philbin has steered the Miami Dolphins out of choppy water to the point at which Miami can clinch a playoff spot Sunday with a win against the New York Jets and either a Baltimore loss to the Bengals or a San Diego Chargers' win over the Chiefs.

Each coach's accomplishments are impressive. Each candidate is beyond worthy. A case can be made for each. There is no wrong choice. But there is only one coach of the year award. Votes are likely to be spread among these candidates and even more.

The regular season is not enough to declare one winner. The postseason is needed.

Bleak Monday for coaches: This season, there are 10 teams -- Houston, Minnesota, Washington, Oakland, Tennessee, New York Jets, New York Giants, Dallas, Detroit and Tampa Bay -- facing questions about whether their head coach will return next season. Those 10 are before the annual surprise coaching change that no one expects but almost always happens.

When all is said and done this season, chances are there will be about seven changes. Why seven? Simple math. Going back to the start of this century, there have been 95 head-coaching changes since 2000 -- an average of 6.8 per season.

There were eight head-coaching changes last year, seven in 2012 and seven in 2011. It's where the number usually comes in and probably will again. It might be a little higher, it might be a little lower, but one of the most difficult times of the season is upon us.

Some call it "Black Monday," but former Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell equated the coming week to "Cut Day," which actually is a more appropriate and tasteful description. This is Cut Day for NFL coaches. A handful of NFL owners are going to ask their head coaches to come to the office, turn in their playbooks and take their possessions with them.

Stability in front offices: One year after the most tumultuous offseason for general managers, in which eight teams fired their GMs, we will not see anything close to that type of upheaval in front offices across the league this offseason.

League executives believe there will be a minimal number of general managers fired, if any at all. The main reason: There were so many changes after last season that the league could not, and would not, maintain the same pace after this season.

Still, the spots to monitor now include Miami, Tampa Bay and Detroit, but at least the Florida teams have made strong cases to keep their general managers with their play in the second half of the season. Detroit collapsed down the stretch, and when that happens, all scenarios are in play.

But the carnage left behind in front offices last season will not carry over to this offseason. It is expected to be a more peaceful year.

The Schef's specialties

Game of the Week: Eagles at Cowboys -- For the third straight season, the Cowboys will play a Sunday night, prime-time regular-season finale for the NFC East title.

Upset of the Week: Arizona over San Francisco – The Cardinals played the Niners close before losing to them at Candlestick on Oct. 13, 32-20. They'll will want to finish the job this time.

Player of the Week: Saints QB Drew Brees -- Back in the Superdome, back in his comfort zone, just in time for the Saints to try to lock up a playoff spot.