While watching the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs, did you notice something different?
The Denver Broncos ran for 133 yards against the San Diego Chargers. The San Francisco 49ers ran for 126 yards against the stout Carolina Panthers defense, after rolling for 167 yards the week before. The Seattle Seahawks rushed for 174 yards, and the New England Patriots chewed up an incredible 234 yards on the ground.
The NFL has become, indisputably, a quarterback's league. Yet, when passing yardage records are falling left and right, the last four teams standing in the NFL postseason all got this far by keeping it on the ground.
Is there something about the postseason that makes an effective running game more, well, effective in the playoffs?
The Final Four
Let's take a look at how the last four NFL contenders got it done in the regular season, based on Pro Football Reference's data:
The two pie charts for each team represent run/pass balance. On the left, percentage of total plays that were called passes (pass attempts plus sacks), and the percentage of total plays that were runs. On the right, we see the percentage of offensive yards gained through the air, and the percentage of yards gained on the ground.
As we can see, the 49ers and Seahawks both called run plays about 52 percent of the time, and gained a little over 40 percent of their yards on the ground.
The Broncos and Patriots were both quite pass-heavy, dropping back to pass about 60 percent of the time. While the Patriots gained 66.4 percent of their yards through the air, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning's ridiculous statistical year shows through: The Broncos gained 74.4 percent of their yards with his passes.
How They Got There
Now, let's look at how they changed their game up in the postseason:
All four teams carried the ball slightly more than average, and all but the Patriots have run more frequently in the playoffs. Again, all four teams run a little more successfully than average during the regular season, and all four teams have put up significantly more rushing yardage per game in the playoffs.
Now, we know that teams often run when they've got a big lead. Running more always correlates with winning more, which is why we always see those "[X team] is 21-2 over the last three seasons when [running back] gets 25 carries or more" nuggets on television broadcasts.
Further, we've got a tiny, itty-bitty sample size: Just one game for the Seahawks, Patriots and Broncos—and the Pats' big rushing total was definitely padded by their big 43-22 win over the Colts.
Still, there's no questioning that the Final Four ran more often than usual in the playoffs—and these teams all did plenty of winning in the regular season.
The passing stats show exactly what we'd expect: Except for the Patriots, who ran a whopping 73 plays against the Colts per Pro Football Reference, the title contenders called pass plays somewhere between "about the same amount" and "much less often."
Three of the four contenders passed for far fewer yards, though, at least in part due to having to face playoff-caliber defenses. Yet, if they're able to run a little more often for a lot more yards, why does passing a little less often net far fewer yards?
Live in Fear of the Big Play, Die by Fear of the Big Play
One hint may come from the 49ers, who've averaged just 186 passing yards per game in the regular season, but have put up 211 per game in the playoffs.
49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick connected with receiver Anquan Boldin for a 45-yard completion when Carolina Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn passed Boldin off to a safety that wasn't there. Those big plays can swing a football game, and they're exactly what defenses try hardest to avoid in the playoffs.
Because going downfield can also lead to mistakes from the offense, it's no surprise that offensive coordinators keep the passing game close to the vest, throwing a little less often and for far fewer yards.
We saw it with the New Orleans Saints against the Seattle Seahawks: The normally pass-happy Saints ran it 26 times, per Pro Football Reference, and averaged just 7.2 yards per pass attempt (well down from his 7.9 yards-per-attempt average in the regular season). Yet, being conservative just shut the Saints down: They didn't even score a point until the fourth quarter, when the game was already out of hand.
It's hard to see why they tried this strategy; it's the same approach that got them blown out by the Seahawks in Week 13. I even warned that the Saints needed to pass aggressively before the game!
This is the lesson of the NFL playoffs: It's fine to play conservatively, run the ball a little and try to eliminate big mistakes at the beginning of the game. It's the teams that can actually run the ball successfully, though, that are able to play this low-risk game and win—so if you didn't reach the playoffs on the back of a workhorse runner like the 49ers and Seahawks, don't try to start in the playoffs.
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