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Reeves named top coach

Dan Reeves, who led the Atlanta Falcons to their best season (14-2) and their first NFC West title since 1980, is the Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year.

Although sidelined for the final two regular-season games after heart surgery, he is expected to coach Saturday's playoff game, although he might work from the coaches box upstairs rather than the sideline.

Reeves, 54, also won the award in 1993 with the New York Giants. Previously, he led the Denver Broncos to three AFC championships, although they lost each time in the Super Bowl.

"It's a tremendous honor," said Reeves, the NFL's winningest active coach (170-124-1). "When you look at the people that could have won it _ Denny Green, Bill Parcells, Mike Shanahan, guys that have had fantastic years _ you feel honored.

"For me, it's a thrill because of coming in here and turning this thing around; it certainly happened a lot bigger than what I thought. There was no way I could tell you I thought we were going to win the NFC West. We wanted to challenge for the playoffs."

Atlanta, generally picked to finish as an also-ran, wound up with the second-best record in the league, tied with Denver. Only Minnesota (15-1) was better, and one of Atlanta's losses, to the New York Jets, came when quarterback Chris Chandler was injured.

Reeves received 23{ votes from a nationwide panel of 47 sports writers and broadcasters. Minnesota's Green was next with 14{ and the Jets' Parcells got nine votes.

"I have a very strong personal feeling for him, not only as a coach but a guy that I think highly of personally," Parcells said of Reeves. "He's one of my peers, right in the same group I was in, there, so there is something a little extra there."

49ERS: Charles Haley was drenched in sweat and breathing hard after a light practice at Santa Clara, Calif. And he wondered how ready he'd be to play his first game in two years with just one day of preparation.

"We'll find out on Sunday, won't we," he said.

San Francisco, whose defensive line is ailing, signed Haley, 34, and will use him as a situational pass rusher in today's wild-card game against Green Bay.

"I don't know if this was a desperation move," coach Steve Mariucci said. "Maybe it's a bold move. Maybe it's a surprising move. I don't know if anybody expected us to do this. I don't know if we expected to do this."

Once one of the most feared rushers in the league, Haley hasn't played since 1996 because of back problems that forced him to undergo three operations. In 11 seasons _ six with San Francisco and the last five with Dallas _ Haley had 97{ sacks.

Meanwhile, Bill Walsh, the architect of San Francisco's success in the 1980s, is expected to return to the front office at the end of the post-season, team officials said. He may take over as an interim player personnel director, analyzing college players for the draft and the Niners' on-field needs.

PANTHERS: Carolina is close to an agreement with George Seifert that would make him coach. The Charlotte Observer reported Saturday that "substantial progress" had been made in the negotiations and that there appear to be no significant roadblocks.

The Panthers are seeking a replacement for Dom Capers, who was fired Monday.