Player ProjectionsJanuary 26, 2009

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The Recipe for Playoff Success is…

By Pat Hunley

In a year when Saints quarterback Drew Brees nearly broke Dan Marino’s long-standing record for yards passing, it still seemed that strong running games would reign supreme. After all, a rushing offense should be much more efficient than a passing offense. Moreover, a strong running game allows an offense to hold onto the ball longer and better tire out opposing defenses. Finally, the chance of fumbling the ball away is much lower than the chance of throwing an interception. This logic was validated in the regular season, as several run-heavy offenses appeared poised for long playoff runs. As a matter of fact, every team in the top five in rushing (and six in the top seven) made the playoffs, and only two top five passing teams qualified (Arizona and Indianapolis). The logic seemed infallible. Then the playoffs began, and all logic went out the window.

Now, we have the 32nd ranked rushing offense facing the 23rd ranked rushing offense in the Super Bowl. All those top rushing offenses? They went a combined 2-6, with Baltimore getting both wins.

So what the heck happened? Running the ball (along with stopping the run) is supposed to be a surefire recipe for NFL success, yet the teams with the best running games all lost.

For some reason or another, teams just aren’t running the ball effectively in the postseason. In the regular season, NFL teams averaged about 116 yards per game. In the playoffs, that number dropped to 94 yards per game. This isn’t a year-to-year trend. In fact, back in 2006, rushing averages went up in the playoffs as compared to the regular season, so we shouldn’t expect such a discrepancy next year.

This year’s playoffs are proof that teams don’t have to run the ball effectively to make the Super Bowl. Sure, the Cardinals got help in the postseason from the rebirth of Edgerrin James, but Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald are the reasons they’re not sitting at home right now.

Surprisingly, it’s the same case with Pittsburgh. The Steelers usually rely on a dominant rushing game, however multiple factors caused their run game to falter, and they were ranked 23rd this year. Although their defense was the best in the league, Ben Roethlisberger made the offense hum and won four games on drives late in the fourth quarter. To top it off, he threw for 255 yards against the league’s second best defense, Baltimore, in the AFC Championship.

So what’s the lesson to be learned here? Running the ball gets teams into the playoffs, that’s for sure. But anything can happen once they get there. The Giants, Falcons, Panthers, Ravens, Vikings, and Titans know this all too well. All it takes is a poor day from your quarterback, a mediocre defensive effort, some untimely fumbles in the red zone, or a determined defense to take away that valuable running game. And when that happens, it’s usually too much to overcome.

Pat Hunley is a Steelers fanatic and a Cafe addict who one day aspires to be a sports journalist. You can always find Pat in the Cafe's forums where he posts under the name of steelerfan513.
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