Running games won't take back seat in January

It has been a record season for NFL passers, but history always shows that you have to run the football to be successful in the playoffs. In the 20 previous wild card matchups dating back to 2006, the team that held an edge in the running game won 17 times, and that's why the 49ers are built to hang with the pass-happy teams they will face in their first trip to the postseason in nine years.

In last week's season finale at Green Bay – the Lions/Packers scoreathon that produced the most points (86) in any 2011 season game – the teams combined for only 39 rushing attempts in 147 total snaps, and the game essentially turned into a track meet, with one quarterback passing for 520 yards and five touchdowns and the other throwing for 480 yards and six scores.

So it's only natural that, in a record-setting season in which offenses around the NFL were so severely skewed toward the pass, the presumption is that the playoffs will follow suit.

And it's certainly a pretty fair assessment, given the manner in which the regular season played out. After all, five of the league's top 10 passers, and three of the top four, are participants in this weekend's wild card games.

But before anyone contacts the local FAA authorities for air-space clearance over the stadiums that will host the wild card-round matchups, there are a few dissenters to the notion that the pass will comfortably trump the run.

Not all that surprisingly, most of them, of course, are running backs, who contend their efforts will hold some sway in the outcome of the Saturday and Sunday wild card games.

"I think a lot of people have the perception that we're only about the pass," New Orleans tailback Pierre Thomas told The Sports Xchange. "But we're a lot more balanced than people think, and I can't see that changing in the playoffs. Running games will have their say, believe me. They always do. You can't just be all that one-dimensional at any point, but especially in the playoffs."

Granted, running attacks around the NFL were forced to take a back seat during a 2011 season in which a record three quarterbacks threw for more than 5,000 yards and 10 passers registered 4,000 yards or more. But the running game, claim many backs and coaches, won't just be along for the ride in the playoffs.

Three of the league's statistical top six rushing attacks are in the wild card round. That includes the top two running clubs, Denver (No. 1) and Houston (No. 2); the Saints are the NFL's sixth-ranked ground team.

The 49ers are right behind the Saints among the NFC's six playoff teams. San Francisco is ranked eighth in the NFL in rushing offense, but the Niners may actually rely on the run more than any other team that made the NFC's postseason derby.

Running the football is almost an afterthought for the other four NFC playoff teams. With Michael Turner, the Falcons can be formidable on the ground, but they ranked just 17th in the league in rushing this season and 21st in rushing average. Green Bay finished 27th in rushing offense, Detroit finished 29th and the New York Giants brought up the rear of the NFL, ranking 32nd in both rushing offense and rushing average.

Even though half of the weekend's four wild card matchups will be indoors – assuming the roof is closed at Reliant Stadium for the Bengals-Texans game – there remains some true believers in the time honored adage that you've got to be able to run to win in January. The kind of weather that once rendered playoff games running-game scrums won't be a factor. The running game, however, will be, some players insisted.

"It's our calling card," Denver tailback Willis McGahee said. "I can't imagine that we're just going to flip a switch in the playoffs and throw 50 passes. That just isn't us, you know?"

Said Atlanta's Turner, who did not play in the 2009 regular-season contest in which the Falcons took the New York Giants to overtime before bowing 34-31, but who will be in the lineup when Atlanta travels to East Rutherford for its Sunday afternoon wild card game: "You can't just ignore the runners in these games. It would be a mistake."

It would, as well, run counter to the recent history of the wild card round. Running attacks have traditionally been a big part of the playoffs, and have been especially conspicuous in the wild card round. In the 20 previous wild card matchups, dating back to 2006, the team that held an edge in the running game won 17 times.

New York Jets each rushed for 171 yards in 2009; the Jets won the game. The stats are anything but a fluke, Saints coach Sean Payton, who preaches a physical running game more than most observers might think, agreed last week.

"There's going to come a time (in the playoff games) when you're going to have to be able to run the football," Payton said. "People do it."

Payton knows, painfully so, that's the case. His team was upset at Seattle last year in the wild card round, when the Seahawks ran for 150 yards, nearly twice as many yards as New Orleans netted on the ground (77). In fact, in the four wild card games from 2010, the winning team out-rushed the losers by an average of 60.0 yards per game.

None of the four winning clubs ran for fewer than 138 yards. Just one losing team had more than 100 rushing yards.

If the NFC seedings hold true as expected and the Saints and 49ers – both 13-3 in the regular season – meet in a titanic divisional-round matchup, running the football will become a huge factor as New Orleans attempts to keep its offense balanced and the Niners attempt to set the tone with their run-oriented ground attack and keep the ball away from the high-scoring Saints.

In the past two seasons, the eight losing wild card teams averaged a puny 92.38 yards rushing, and three had fewer than 80 yards on the ground.

The winning teams in the past 20 wild card contests averaged 144.15 rushing yards per game. In 15 of those games, the winners had 100 yards or more, and they went over the 150-yard mark on 11 occasions. There were five games in which the winning club ran for more than 170 yards. On the flip side, the 20 losing wild card entries averaged only 84.95 rushing yards per outing. They cracked 100 yards just four times; only three times in the 20 games did a team run for 150 yards or more and lose the game.

"I know everyone says, like, 'Oh, the passing game is where it's at.' But I still think you set the tone and send a message with the run," said Baltimore tailback Ray Rice, whose 83-yard burst on the opening play of the Ravens' 33-14 manhandling of the Patriots at New England in 2009 paced his club to a 234-yard rushing effort. "You want to be able to impose your mindset in the playoffs, if you can, and you can still do that with the run."

Even the Giants, who ranked last in the NFL in rushing yards per game (89.2) and average yards per rush (3.5) during the regular season, are adamant they have to run the ball this weekend, and in the playoffs in general, to be successful.

This from a team that had only four rushes of 20 yards or more all season, and was one of only two clubs in the league without a 4-yard run, during the year.

Brandon Jacobs tallied just 571 rushing yards in 2011, his worst output since 2006, before he became a starter. Tailback tag-team partner Ahmad Bradshaw ran for only 659 yards, and hasn't had so few since 2008, the last time he logged fewer than 100 attempts in a season. But the Giants still feel the running attack will be critical as they begin postseason play against the Falcons.

"Sure, it's the playoffs, and everyone is (re-energized) by that," Bradshaw said. "But it's still January, (defenders) arms are tired, people don't want to come up and hit as much if they don't have to. I'm not saying we're going to reverse the passing trend from the season. "But you still have to run, too, in the playoffs."

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