Despite the proclamations of many, the NFL still looks to be a running league, at least once playoff time rolls around.
The NFL has become a passing league. You don’t have to look too deeply to find evidence of that. Quarterbacks are piling up unprecedented numbers, referees are calling penalties downfield much more tightly, and every so-called expert fit to offer an opinion seems to agree that the NFL, and football leagues at all levels for that matter, is becoming a passing league.
The question though is, are they quite there yet? Fans in Indianapolis, Arizona, New Orleans and even San Diego are sure hoping so. If the league favors the passing game these days, there are few teams better equipped than those to air it out and run it up. And with 3 of this weekend’s games being staged in domes, and the other in sunny San Diego, there’s virtually no chance that conditions are anything but ideal for primed offenses to open things up this weekend.
In terms of getting to the playoffs, a strong passing game may be the key, or at least a big part of the formula. Seven of the top eight passing offenses from this season qualified for postseason play, and 5 of those remain alive into this weekend’s action. That’s partly because 4 of those teams earned byes for the first round of the playoffs – a testament to their success no doubt – but among those who played only Dallas managed a win.
New England’s 3rd ranked pass offense fell to a Ravens club that finished the season 18th in passing yards, and only completed 4 passes themselves on Sunday. The sixth ranked Cowboys advanced as well, against the 10th ranked Eagles, and in doing so out rushed Philadelphia nearly 3 carries to 1. The 7th ranked Packers fell to the 12th ranked Cardinals in a shootout for the ages, and the Cards may consider themselves lucky to have escaped a game that most conceded would boil down to who had the ball last. It’s probably still worth mentioning though, that with a 17 point lead early, and a 31-10 lead just after halftime, Arizona probably wins easily if they use Beanie Wells and his 6.5 yards per carry for the game, more than 14 times. This weekend, the 2nd ranked Colts, 4th ranked Saints, 5th ranked Chargers and 8th ranked Vikings will try to join the Cowboys in reversing the run first trend.
When you look at running stats, the trend remains the same, where the Jets (1st), Ravens (5th) and Bengals (9th) are the only top 10 running offenses to gain entry to the playoffs without a top 10 passing game too. (The Saints and Cowboys are 6th and 7th respectively, but also boast top 10 passing offenses) But again in last weekend’s action we saw 3 of 4 games go to the team who ran the ball better during the season, and arguably all 4 went to the team better equipped and more committed to running the ball in their playoff games. (Make your own determination on what decided that Packers / Cardinals game)
If you’re looking for a read on this debate, from an offensive standpoint, this weekend’s games couldn’t provide a better “boxer vs. puncher” analogy, especially in the AFC. On Saturday the Jets will take a #1 running game and a #31 passing game to San Diego, where conditions should be ideal for anything, to face a Chargers offense ranked 5th in passing and 31st in rushing. On Sunday the Ravens will take the 5th ranked rushing offense and 18th ranked passing offense to see a Colts offense that ranks 2nd in passing, but 32nd (that’s last) in rushing.
On the NFC side the offensive match ups might be a little trickier than the numbers may bear out. When the Cardinals travel to New Orleans on Saturday, they’ll be offensively overmatched on both sides, at least statistically. The Saints pass offense ranks 4th in the league to the Cardinals at 12th, but the Saints also boast the 6th ranked rushing offense, while the Cardinals come in at 28th. In Sunday’s match up, Dallas brings the 6th ranked passing offense and 7th ranked rushing offense, the Vikings come in at 8th in passing and 13th in rushing.
While the Saints look better equipped in both ways offensively, the Cardinals have found some rhythm in their running game since expanding the role of Beanie Wells, still with the fear that either of their backs could put the ball on the carpet at any time, Arizona looks like they actually feel safer with Kurt Warner and the passing game, and probably have more top end talent in the passing game than New Orleans if not their depth, especially if Boldin is healthy. The Saints look like they can beat you offensively any way they choose, but also seem to have lost momentum over the seasons closing weeks.
While the Cowboys have the edge statistically over the Vikings in both offensive phases of the game, it’s tough to argue that there’s a more dangerous back in football than Adrian Peterson, and despite his down year offensively, a fresher Peterson for the playoffs could become a scary proposition if the Vikings choose to lean on him. The passing edge favors Dallas statistically too, but in a much closer fashion, whether you’d rather have Brett Favre or Tony Romo quarterbacking your playoff team may be a no-brainer, but both have been known to make some pretty curious decisions in crunch time, usually though, in Favre’s case they work.
While the AFC games seem clear cut offensively, with one team looking to run and the other to pass, in the NFC, it may come down to which team is better able, or better equipped to be the dominant clock controlling ground game on game day.
On the defensive side of things, the argument may look much different. As it pertains to regular season rankings and making the playoffs, 7 of the top 10 run defenses earned playoff berths, and four of them remain as week 2 approaches. However, in this weekend’s match ups, Green Bay and the leagues top ranked rushing defense lost to the Cardinals, ranked 17th against the run, although run defense was of little consequence in that match up, as both teams looked utterly off balance and unprepared when faced with the few rushing attempts they did see. And the 7th ranked Bengals rush defense lost to the 8th ranked Jets, in what was statistically a push going in, and was basically a push for the day too, with Bengals equaling the Jets’ yardage total, but in less attempts, for a better average, but less time of possession.
The 5th ranked Ravens run defense disposed of the 13th ranked Patriots, in a game where running and run defense was clearly the deciding factor, and the 4th ranked Cowboys run defense took out the 9th ranked Eagles, in a game where the Cowboys ran 35 times for 198 yards and 2 TD and the Eagles managed just 13 attempts for 56 yards and no end zone trips.
Of the top 10 pass defenses for the regular season, only 4 earned spots in the playoffs, and all 4 also had top 10 run defenses as well. Over the weekend it held up like this, the 1st ranked Jets and 8th ranked Ravens predictably disposed of the 6th ranked Bengals and 12th ranked Patriots, but the 23rd ranked Cardinals beat the 5th ranked Packers and made them look like anything but a top 5 pass defense, and 17th ranked Eagles lost to the 20th ranked Cowboys’ pass defense.
In this weekend’s match ups, the Ravens bring the 5th ranked run defense and 8th ranked pass defense against an Indy team that will look to test that highly ranked yet somehow highly maligned Ravens’ secondary. The Colts’ run defense, for their part, ranks 24th in the league, and may have benefited a lot from the Colts’ prolific winning streak and ability to force teams into catch up mode. As for their pass defense, the Colts come in at a middle of the road 14th. This one seems simple to figure out, the Ravens will try to run, and the statistics say that they should be able to. The Colts will look to pass, big surprise, and although it looks statistically like they might have some problems, and the Ravens secondary seemed to go to another level in Foxboro on Sunday, I’ll still believe that when I see it.
As stated above, San Diego will probably be looking to air it out against the Jets and will have their work cut out for them. It’ll be cut out for them no matter how they choose to attack a Jets defense that ranks 1st against the pass and 8th against the run. If the Jets defense does what they’re capable of, then this one could fall to rookie Mark Sanchez, or more likely the Jets running game. For their part, the Chargers rank 20th against the run, so they’ll have their work cut out for them there. The rookie Sanchez will have to deal with a San Diego pass defense that ranks just outside of the top 10 statistically at 11th, but who may have to load up the box in an effort to stop the Jets’ prolific running game.
On the NFC side, in what looks to be a shootout, Arizona is obviously utterly under equipped to deal with an offense like the Saints’. The Cards pass defense ranks 23rd in the league, and their run defense isn’t much better coming in at an unimpressive 17th. It looks like Sean Payton and Drew Brees will have their choice of how to attack the Cards’ defense, and if you saw them last week, it’s tough to argue that this Arizona team is ready for an offense like the Saints. Defensively the Saints come in ranked 23rd against the run, despite playing much of the season from far ahead. And like the Cardinals, the Saints’ pass defense is even worse ranking 26th in the league. Like Brees, Kurt Warner should have his choice of how to go after the Saints defense, but seems less likely to rely on the running game if it’s close. This may be another case of whichever team scores last wins, but the Saints didn’t look good before they elected to shut down, if they take time to get warmed up, this one could start like the Cardinals’ last game. We may get to see if they learned anything about running the clock from that one.
And in the other game, the Cowboys with the 20th ranked pass defense and 4th ranked run defense have a pretty clear game plan. They have to hope that their highly regarded run defense can minimize Adrian Peterson, and will have to take their chances against Brett Favre. If the Vikings decide to lean on Peterson though, Dallas may find out just how good he is, which could open up things for Favre and the passing game. The Vikings defense, ranked 7th against the run and 19th against the pass, will hope they have what it takes to minimize the damage from Dallas’ three headed backfield, and will have to hope that Tony Romo lives up to his reputation for making mistakes in crucial moments.
So whether or no the league has gone fully to a passing league, just yet at least, is still debatable, but this weekend’s games should provide an interesting case study in what wins playoff games, particularly in the AFC. I’ll stick with defense and running, until it’s proven otherwise, and last weekend’s games seem to support that notion. That’s playoff football; right?