It happens a lot in the NFL: The dazzling revolutions of September and October — the promise of a new-fangled Wildcat or read-option or run-and-shoot paradigm that will change everything — often fall by the wayside in the bitter rain and snow and cold of January, when football returns to the eternal verities of truth and reality.
So it is this year.
In a season during which passing and scoring records fell, all four Championship Sunday participants (including the one that set those records) relied on the timeless formula last weekend: run the ball effectively, control the clock, play solid defense and make the other team earn every point it scores.
You could see evidence of the back-to-basics approach in every divisional-round game:
- Russell Wilson’s passing was mostly grounded, and the oft-injured Percy Harvin was knocked out of the action with a concussion, but the Seahawks still took down the Saints. Seattle won behind tackle-breaking machine Marshawn Lynch (in postseason Beast Mode, evidently) and a suffocating defense that rattled New Orleans’ top weapon, Jimmy Graham.
- New England, decimated by injuries on both sides of the ball (along with, it has to be said, the murder charge against tight end Aaron Hernandez), has fewer difference-makers than it has had at any time in recent memory. But LeGarrette Blount was the blunt force that the Patriots used to pound the Colts’ defense into submission. Meanwhile, the Pats’ myriad defensive looks frustrated Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck, who threw four interceptions.
- San Francisco won its second road playoff contest in eight days, thanks in large part to a defense that stonewalled Carolina’s running game (Cam Newton was the only Panther to eclipse 20 yards rushing) and snagged two interceptions. Offensively, the 49ers employed a balanced attack: Frank Gore led the charge on the ground while Colin Kaepernick made some timely plays through the air, leaning heavily on veteran gamer Anquan Boldin.
- Denver used San Diego’s own formula from the regular season — control the ball, shorten the game, manage the clock (35:27 of possession) — to keep the Chargers on their heels all day long. Denver’s defense missed Von Miller’s havoc-wreaking presence but stiffened enough to allow the Bolts just 65 yards rushing, less than half of what the Broncos churned out in a winning effort.
Each one of the four divisional-round winners exceeded 125 yards rushing. After setting the single-season record with an astounding 5,477 passing yards, Peyton Manning threw for just 230, with the other three winning quarterbacks failing to reach 200. Glamour QBs Tom Brady and Wilson didn’t even throw a single touchdown pass.
There is, of course, a long tradition of returning to the run game in the postseason. Go back 45 years to the New York Jets’ memorable defeat of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. New York was led by Joe Namath, who was one season removed from becoming the first quarterback in pro football history to throw for 4,000 yards, but the Jets ran more than they passed on that day (logging 43 carries and 29 throws), to control the clock and the Colts. (A year later, the Kansas City Chiefs — another team known for offensive daring and innovation — rushed the ball 42 times for 151 yards to dominate the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV.)
These things were true 45 years ago, and they still might be true 45 years from now.
In recent years, we’ve seen running backs de-emphasized on draft day. Yet, by the time the playoffs roll around, the best teams almost always have a solid run game in place.
The star of the divisional weekend, Blount, went undrafted out of college and was pawned off by the Buccaneers this past offseason — yet he’s been unstoppable for the Patriots of late. Marshawn Lynch was a first-round draft choice, but the Bills gave up on him before the Seahawks recast him as their most reliable offensive threat. Knowshon Moreno’s demise had been rumored for years in Denver, but this season he’s been a steady all-around back who doesn’t fumble (and a strong blocker, to boot). Frank Gore is a former third-round pick — thanks in part to some injury baggage from college — who has developed a reputation as a tough inside runner, and his efficiency boosts both the passing game and Kaepernick’s devastatingly effective keepers.
So why does this happen so often? Why do the gaudy passing numbers of the regular season frequently get supplanted by the meat and potatoes of old-school football in the new year? Simple reasons, mostly:
Better defense: Playoff teams are generally more accomplished defensively, meaning each opponent has a formidable pass rush. The best way to neutralize this is to have a running game that the defense has to take seriously.
Weather: So Peyton Manning isn’t as good in cold-weather games? Guess what: He’s not alone — not by a long shot. Show me a quarterback who consistently overperforms in freezing temperatures and snow, and I’ll show you an anomaly. Cold weather leads to numb hands, making it very difficult to execute the touch throws that separate the great quarterbacks from the good ones. And while receivers enjoy a slight advantage over defensive backs in terms of footing — because they know where they’re going — it’s much harder to catch a rifled pass in sub-freezing weather than it is on a room-temperature day. (If you’ve never tried it, just trust me.)
Dangerous opposing quarterbacks: You can get away with a quick, drive-killing string of incompletions — or even a turnover — when the quarterback on the other side is an untested rookie/journeyman who lacks pocket presence. But do that in a playoff game against a Manning or Brady, and you’re going to get burned. That’s why it’s all the more important to control the football and minimize mistakes.
Throwback football will be on full display in the NFC Championship Game, as the style fits the personalities of the coaches very well. A physical running game is a large part of the DNA both Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh used to build their respective teams.
It’s a bit different on the AFC side. New England’s commitment to the run is simply Bill Belichick’s adaptation to a roster that’s currently short on difference-making receivers and tight ends. The Pats very well could go back to being a top-five passing attack and the league’s top-ranked offense next season if they can come up with the right group of receivers for Brady. On the other hand, Denver is only committed to the run as long as you stay in a loose shell defense that begs the Broncos to use it.
In each game, though, both teams will look to assert their will by establishing a ground attack. And the ones that do so best will likely meet in New Jersey in February.