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Back to the future

Divisional Round winners took to the ground this past weekend to grind out hard fought victories. Len Pasquarelli

Print This January 14, 2014, 07:00 AM EST

What’s next, some team coming out in the conference championship games and running a play or two from the single-wing or the T-formation? The ol’ “Flying Wedge” employed on a kickoff return? Receivers being jammed 15 or 20 yards down the field, like they were before the “Isaac Curtis Rule?” How about the head coaches wearing suits and ties, huh?

Heck, even in this era of so much concussion awareness, keep an eye out for some player in a leather helmet next weekend.

Rampant hyperbole, for sure. But in a league that has skewed so much toward the pass anymore, it was stunning to see the running game make so big a comeback in the weekend’s divisional round. Stunning, but also a little refreshing. Even for some of the players who generally are more accustomed to pass protection than they are drive-blocking.

“It was fun out there, having the game on us so much,” said New England left tackle Nate Solder, whose team rushed for 234 yards and six touchdowns, fueled by Tampa Bay throwaway LeGarrette Blount (provide your own “Blount-force trauma” pun here) and his four scores. “Linemen love that kind of stuff. You do what you have to do to win. This was a little different for us, but it was great.”

Over the past few weeks, the Patriots have evolved into the poster boys for running the ball. Could have something to do with the fact Tom Brady was sacked 40 times in 2013, the most since his first season as a starter. Or perhaps that a receiving corps depleted by free agency defections, releases, injuries and murder allegations simply isn’t all that good. Whatever the reason, Bill Belichick—who doubtless has uttered the “do what you have to do to win” mantra so many time that Solder doesn’t mind parroting it – has gone retro.

And for one weekend, at least, so did the rest of the NFL.

Marshawn LynchLynch rushed for 140 yards and two scores on 28 carries in Saturday's win over New Orleans.

There was some hint of a return to the run in the wild card games, certainly, but not to the point where most observers felt the divisional round would be transformed into trench warfare. What’s the military saying about “boots on the ground?” Well, league teams put their cleats on the ground, and their Super Bowl aspirations on the ground game, over the weekend.   

“It’s kind of what you do this time of year, I guess,” one Seattle Seahawks receiver, who grudgingly acknowledged the effectiveness of the rushing game, told NFP. “I mean, you always want to be the tougher team. We certainly always want to be the aggressor. But at playoff time, it’s even more (pronounced).”

One could almost hear Olivia Newton-John, and her “Lets Get Physical,” anthem in the background. In videotape preview sessions, coaches didn’t substitute “Back to the Future” for actual game reels. But offensive game plans could have been devised by Dr. Emmett Brown, ably assisted by Marty McFly.

“It was,” allowed Denver guard Louis Vasquez, “a little bit of throwback football.”

A little?

The four winning teams from the weekend, which will now play for the right to move on to Super Bowl XLVIII, averaged 37.35 rushes and 166.8 rushing yards in their victories. By comparison, they averaged 25 pass “dropbacks’ (including sacks) for the games. Seattle’s Russell Wilson, who essentially became the equivalent of a pedestal by which tailback Marshawn Lynch could run by and snatch the teed-up football, had 21 passing attempts. The four losing clubs averaged 22.25 carries for 83.8 yards.

Obviously, an element of the disparity had something to do with the scores and the conditions, since none of the games were close toward the end, except for the San Diego comeback. But just from a few conversations NFP had Monday with players from the winning teams, the game plans from the outset dictated more runs. The scores had something to do with the big weekend for the run, but there seemed to be a collective approach from some coaches that they were going to rely much more on the infantry than on their air forces.

Notable is that this isn’t the first time – not even the first time in a long time – that all four divisional-round winners were the teams that ran the ball more. It was the case as recently as in 2010. In fact, since the NFL adopted its current alignment and playoff format in 2002, it’s occurred now six times in 12 seasons – in 2002, 2004, 2005, 2009, 2010 and 2013.

Given that kind of history, maybe it was predictable. But it didn’t seem that way to some of the defenses that got trampled over the weekend. “I didn’t think any team could run over us that way,” Indianapolis end Cory Redding said.

In hindsight, maybe the Colts should have seen that Mack truck – cleverly disguised as Blount – coming at them. Belichick relishes a hard-nose game and very physical football and he began gearing up his team for the “second season” a few weeks ago. No, not at the midpoint of the season, as the TV analysts suggested during the rout. But definitely with a couple weeks remaining in the regular season.

“Maybe our mindset changed a little,” Solder said.

And maybe it became contagious.

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