Playoffs Headlined by Star Quarterbacks, but Run Games Paving Way to Super Bowl

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJanuary 12, 2014

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 11:  LeGarrette Blount #29 of the New England Patriots runs a 73 yard touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Indianapolis Colts during the AFC Divisional Playoff game at Gillette Stadium on January 11, 2014 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

The NFL is a pass-first league, but that does not mean that the ability to run the football has to become a lost art.

Saturday's slate of divisional-round action showed just how a strong running game remains important in age of prolific passing.

The evolution of modern offenses (along with a few rule changes, perhaps) has led to a world where more passing records fall by the day and where games are won by aerial assault. 

Teams are build around passing and defending the pass, and quarterbacks are among the biggest (and wealthiest) icons in all of professional sports.

So it is no surprise that the 2014 playoffs have featured a star-studded cast of quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick and Tom Brady. 

What is a little surprising is the fact that the successful (read winning) quarterbacks in Saturday's divisional games did not do much of the heavy lifting.

Instead, the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots did most of their offensive damage on the ground in their wins over the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts, respectively. 

The Seahawks and Patriots combined for 408 net yards rushing on the day. Conversely, quarterbacks Wilson and Brady combined for a mere 301 yards and zero touchdowns. This total is less than either of the losing quarterbacks, Brees and Luck, gained on an individual basis.

So why did the ground game make so much of a difference on Saturday when passing has dominated the regular season?

To find the answer, we must dig a little bit into the details.

Traditionally, the advantages of a strong rushing attack are its ability to physically wear down a defense, set the pace of a game, minimize mistakes and control the clock. 

The Seahawks and Patriots combined for zero turnovers and appeared to be in control offensively for the majority of their contests. Both teams also pounded their opponents enough on the ground to land a late knockout blow (Seattle's Marshawn Lynch and New England's LeGarrette Blount scored on fourth-quarter runs of 31 and 73 yards, respectively).

A strong ground game also allowed the two winning teams to establish a degree of ball control. While the Seahawks did not dominate time of possession (they held the ball for one minute less than New Orleans) the Patriots did (with a 10-minute differential).

While Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly might tell you that time-of-possession is an overrated statistic (his team lost in the Wild Card round, by the way), the ability to maintain possession for chunks of real time is vital when facing elite-caliber signal-callers.

Considering that some of the game's best quarterbacks are playing for a Super Bowl berth, this is an important factor moving forward.

We have seen the type of magic Luck and Brees can produce when they are on. However, neither player appeared to get into a real rhythm on Saturday, at least in part because they spent large stretches on the sideline watching while their defenses were punched in the proverbial mouth on the ground. 

Keep in mind that Luck didn't engineer Indianapolis' miraculous comeback against the Kansas City last week until after the Chiefs lost its top two running backs and could no longer control the clock. Against the Patriots, he appeared to mistime several throws and tossed four picks. 

Poor weather conditions may have played a role in the Saints' and Colts' quarterback struggles. Of course, one way to limit quarterback mistakes in bad weather is to run the football. 

As a team, the Colts failed to reach the 100-yard rushing mark (they gained 69). The Saints (108 yards) barely did. Neither team had a single runner top 65 yards (former first-round pick Trent Richardson gained just one yard on three attempts).

Both the Seahawks (Lynch, 140 yards) and Patriots (Blount, 166 yards) had a single runner that outgained their opponents' team total.

Each Team's Leading Rusher on Divisional Saturday
SeattleMarshawn Lynch281405.02
New OrleansKhiry Robinson13574.381
New EnglandLeGarrette Blount241666.914
IndianapolisDonald Brown17633.70
stats via

Again, these teams' ability to run the football helped minimize the chances of quarterback mistakes in bad conditions. Brady and Wilson combined for just 43 pass attempts, while Luck and Brees each passed more than 40 times.

As the remaining playoff teams continue their march toward an outdoor Super Bowl in a New York in February, this is another factor worth following.

Finally, as Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio pointed out in a recent column, there is the fact that NFL defenses are now built to defend against the pass. A strong running game can be an advantage against defenses built around agile pass-rushers and fast defensive backs.

Jan 11, 2014; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch (24) scores a touchdown against New Orleans Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis (28) during the second half of the 2013 NFC divisional playoff football game at CenturyLink Field. The
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

While this does not necessarily mean that the league could trend back toward run-centric offenses (a possibility Florio suggests), it does seem to indicate that the last two teams playing this postseason likely will have benefited from a productive ground attack.

Sound quarterback play is still vital. (Both Wilson and Brady were efficient when they did throw on Saturday.) At a time when the only quarterbacks still playing football are among the league's best, however, it is the running game that could mean the difference between another game and a ticket home.

On at least one day this weekend, it has.