“It’s not so easy to become what one is, to rediscover one’s deepest measure.”
In his playoff preview column last week, ESPN’s Bill Simmons talked about how the rules for playoff football had changed: Running the ball and stopping the run were no longer prerequisites for playoff success. Simmons pointed out all the crazy quarterbacking statistics this year—with 11 guys throwing for over 4000 yards and all—and how last year’s Super Bowl became a back-and-forth aerial assault between Roethlisberger/Holmes and Warner/Fitzgerald. Teams that didn’t excel in, or even especially try, running the ball could still win in the playoffs.
You might remember that way back in Week 1 I mentioned the downfall of the running game in American football. In that post, I said, among other things, that there was a lack of correlation between having a star running back and having postseason success (see: Chris Johnson this year). I also asked whether a team that passes the ball 60-70% of the time be successful in the NFL.
What neither Simmons nor I could have predicted was the efficacy of a one-dimensional rushing attack. It used to be that, in order to stop an offense, you made them one-dimensional. Take away the run and make the quarterback beat you, or vice versa. But throughout this NFL season, some of the league’s best offenses were so good in one area that it didn’t matter what they did in the other. And the success of a one-dimensional offense was reiterated and furthered on Wild Card Weekend, when three of the four winners won with unbalanced offensive performances.
The Jets, Ravens, and Cardinals all showed that containing, to say nothing of taking away entirely, the primary aspect of their respective offenses was a lot easier said than done (much to my Bengals 16, Jets 7 chagrin). The Jets ran 41 times and passed it 15 times in controlling the clock and beating Cincinnati.* The Cardinals had a modicum of balance with 33 passes to 23 rushes (58.9% passing), but let’s face it: Green Bay was playing some version of a 1-3-7 at times in that game and couldn’t stop Arizona’s passing game. Kurt Warner had more touchdowns than incompletions. The Ravens ran the ball 52 times in 62 plays and dominated the Patriots. Joe Flacco completed four passes and his team still scored 33 points (even though he had more incompletions than Warner). When’s the last time a team almost scored as many points as it had passing yards in a playoff game and won? Has a team ever completed fewer than four passes in scoring 30+ points? Has a team ever won with fewer completions in the playoffs?
*It is worth mentioning that those 15 pass attempts did add up to 182 yards, a very impressive total in Mark Sanchez’s first playoff game.
Only the Cowboys, with their 1:1 ratio of rushes to passes (35 and 35) remained balanced.
And it’s not likely to change this weekend. The two hosts in the AFC (who just happen to be the presumptive Super Bowl favorites) are about as one-dimensional as great offenses come. The Colts were second in the league in passing and last in rushing. The Chargers were fifth in the league in passing and second-to-last in rushing. That’s right: The two worst rushing teams in the league happen to be the two best teams in the league.
Simmons is right in saying that passing the ball is now largely more effective than running the ball: One need only look at the difference in offensive capability between the Colts and the Jets. But that isn’t to say you can’t win in the NFL as a one-dimensional running team. As long as you have a good defense, the Jets and Ravens proved as much last weekend.
That’s what makes this week’s clashes in the AFC so intriguing (if not as unpredictable as its NFC counterparts): Theoretically, the easiest way to beat teams like the Colts and Chargers is to run the ball, control the clock, and stick someone as good as Darrelle Revis on their best wide receiver.* If Shonn Greene and Ray Rice and Thomas Jones and Willis McGahee continue to hammer through opposing lines and find holes, there might just be another game in Giants Stadium.
*Of course, one can’t help but think it would be even more intriguing if the matchups were switched, and the Colts and Chargers each had to host teams that beat them on their home turf this season.
- Finally, finally I can justifiably say that the Ravens are the best team in the AFC North. It has been proven!
- Although by that logic, the Jets are the best team in the AFC East, and I still disagree with that idea. (They still haven’t beaten last year’s division champion.)
- Jets Bash of the Week: Hey Jets, why don’t you try beating a team that’s won a playoff game since the start of the Gulf War? Or maybe beat a QB who doesn’t airmail every open receiver for four entire quarters, or a kicker who makes a field goal or two? Can you swing that for us?
- My praises of Ray Rice will continue! As Peter King astutely pointed out, Rice’s biggest run of the game may not have been the opening 83-yarder, but rather the third-down run he had on the next drive. He plowed through two Patriots to get five yards and a first down to set up Baltimore’s second TD. Big difference there between a 10-0 and a 14-0 lead. Rice is the best back still playing, and that includes Adrian Peterson (King is less astute in saying Rice belongs in the conversation of the 10 best backs; cut that number in half, Pete).
- Lost amid the Brett Favre hoopla all season has been the perplexing step back taken by Peterson. He had his lowest average per carry and average yards per game of his career by a substantial margin, and he barely ran for more yards this year than he did in his rookie season, when he was a part-time starter and missed multiple games due to injury. Contrary to what I said in that Week 1 post, the Vikings threw the ball more than they ran it this year—a LOT more. And considering Peterson’s fumbling problems and his inability to pick up a blitz, you have to seriously consider whether he’s one of the league’s best five running backs (Johnson, Rice, and Jones-Drew at least have done much more than AD this season).
- Chiefs Plug of the Week: Wow…Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel in the same week? Looks like my 9-7 call was a year early.
- Not shocked to see the Cowboys beat the Eagles, but I was very surprised to see how easily they did it for a second consecutive week. A lot of people make fun of Andy Reid as a coach for his game management, but nobody’s ever really criticized his game planning. I expected Philly to come out with something different offensively to utilize their speed and to put some points on the board. Didn’t happen, and the Dallas D is playing as well as it has in years with Ware and Spencer on the outside.
- Was shocked to see how the Patriots didn’t even put up an offensive fight against the Ravens, although the beat-up Baltimore secondary looked like the ballhawking unit of yore. Time for those broken ribs to heal for Brady I guess.
- Was I all over that Pack-Cards game or what? I contemplated predicting a higher score than the 35-31 I did, but nothing higher than 42-38 or something like that. I’m not one of those fans who dislikes old-fashioned, low-scoring smash mouth Ravens-Titans type playoff games, but I do have to admit seeing a ridiculous shootout like that is a lot of fun every once in a while. Let’s see Arizona and New Orleans do it again on Saturday.