A Resurgence of the Running Game Is on Display in the NFL Playoffs

The NFL's four best rushing teams (Ravens, 49ers, Titans, Seahawks) are still playing

Running the Ball Is Having a Resurgence in NFL Playoffs
Ryan Tannehill hands off to Derrick Henry. (Adam Glanzman/Getty)
By Evan Bleier / January 10, 2020 6:00 am

This season in the NFL, For the first time since 1970, the Buccaneers, Cowboys, Falcons and Rams were the top four passing teams by yards in the NFL. 

Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, Dallas, Atlanta and Los Angeles, they all missed the playoffs.

On the other hand, the NFL’s top four rushing teams — the Ravens, 49ers, Titans and Seahawks — all made the postseason and will play this weekend in the league’s divisional round. 

Given how prevalent passing has become in the NFL, it’s not really a surprise that the first time the league’s top-four passing teams have missed the playoffs while the top-four rushing teams have qualified for the postseason since 1970. 

Other than the Chiefs, all the remaining playoff teams finished outside the top-12 in passing yards: 49ers (13th), Seahawks (14th), Texans (15th), Packers (17), Titans (21st), Vikings (23), Ravens (27).

With Kansas City included, the eight teams that are left in the playoffs gained 36.9 percent of their yardage on the ground this season. By comparison, the 22 teams that have been eliminated or didn’t qualify for the playoffs gained just 30.8 percent of their yards on the ground.

While running is certainly an important component of this year’s playoff class, FiveThirtyEight points out that passing may actually be the best route for success in the postseason.

After all, former Heisman winner Derrick Henry gashed the Patriots for 182 yards on 34 carries, but the Titans only managed to put up 14 points and likely would have lost if New England’s offense was remotely competent.

“So despite the apparent throwback to bull-dozing backs and prolific running performances, the best strategy for the playoff defenses may actually be to follow Belichick’s lead, letting their opponents flex their running muscles rather than making them throw,” according to FiveThirtyEight. “With passing, the yards are still much easier to come by, and the points are more certain to follow.”

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