The Return of the Rushing Touchdown

A few weeks ago, we talked about the recent rise of teams that were beginning to run the ball more often than they threw it – I named them Neanderthal teams.

Those teams are all home now, but in the discussion I gave a timeline of passing vs running, both as far as plays called and touchdowns scored.  Once the number of touchdown passes eclipsed the number of rushing touchdowns, the trend has never reversed.  This year, the average NFL team threw 26.5 touchdown passes, while scoring just 13.7 times on the ground.

All of which makes last weekend’s results – the Divisional Round in this year’s playoffs – that much more unusual.

In Kansas City, young quarterback Patrick Mahomes has been the face of the passing revolution.  During the regular season, he led all passers, tossing an almost unheard of 50 touchdown passes.  Last Saturday, against Indianapolis, he threw none.  The Chiefs still hammered the Colts, though, as they bullied them with 4 rushing touchdowns.

A few hours after that game, the Los Angeles Rams took the field, hosting the Dallas Cowboys.  They are kind of the NFC face of the passing revolution, behind their young quarterback, Jared Goff.  Jared had thrown 32 touchdown passes during the season.  He also threw none in the Saturday playoff game.  The Rams, though, were also victorious – and looking almost Neanderthalish – as they bullied Dallas with 273 rushing yards and 3 rushing touchdowns.

In the early game Sunday, the New England Patriots also won behind their running game.  They hammered the Chargers to the tune of 155 rushing yards and 4 rushing touchdowns.  Along the way, they did manage one passing touchdown.

So, the first three winning teams in the Divisional Round combined to throw for 1 touchdown, while piling up a combined 11 on the ground.

In Sunday’s late game, Drew Breese broke the spell with 2 touchdown passes thrown against none scored on the ground.  That game deviated from the general theme of the playoffs second round – early domination.

In the first three games, the eventual winning teams averaged 26.3 points scored in the first half, averaged 304 yards of offense (again, just the first half), and controlled the clock for an average of 20:37 (with all of them at least at 20:11 of ball control in the first half).  Their average halftime lead was 19.3 points, and they had outgained their opponents by an average of 112.7 yards.  The combined difference in first downs at the half was 62-18.

All of these offenses were slowed a bit in the second half, with the Chiefs and Patriots cruising to victories.  The Cowboys did manage to creep back into their contest and made a game of it, but in the end, it was just too steep a hole to dig themselves out of.

By way of profiling the league, it’s worth noting that the NFL’s final four contain all four of the top scoring teams in football, but only one of the top ten scoring defenses (New England finished seventh).  By yards gained, all of the offenses finished in the top ten, with three of them being in the top 5.  There are no top ten defenses left standing.

Two of the top 5 passing offenses (by yards gained) are still playing, as are three of the top 8 quarterbacks ranked by passer rating.  This total includes the NFL’s top two rated passers – Breese (115.7) and Mahomes (113.8), with Goff (101.1) ranking eighth.  There are no top ten passing defenses (by yards) left, and by passer rating against, only New England – number 7 in the league at 85.4 – will be playing this weekend.

Of note, three of the top six rushing offenses are still playing.  Of the top ten run defenses, only New Orleans – second, allowing 80.2 yards per game – is left.

There was a moment when a handful of upstart defensive teams – Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Tennessee – looked like they might disrupt the league’s offensive meme.  Those guys are all home now.  These days, if you want to hang with the elite’s in the NFL, you better pack a head-spinning offense.

The AFC is setting up to re-match New England and Kansas City.  They met in the Week Six Sunday night game – a 43-40 Patriot win that reflected the story of the season.  These teams combined for 946 yards the first time they met.  They are also coming off the two most dominant games in the Divisional Round.

Taming the Colts

The Colts had been, perhaps, the best story in the NFL in 2018.  They famously began the year 1-5 and then won 10 of their next 11, bringing them into Kansas City for the second round of the playoffs.

Eight minutes and 32 seconds into the contest – after Tyreek Hill had weaved his way 36 yards through the entire Colts defense for a touchdown (yes, a rushing touchdown) – it was pretty apparent that the Colt’s dream run had come to an end.  At that point, they were already down 14-0.  During that eight-and-a-half minute span, they had watched the Chiefs march the length of the field twice (140 yards in 13 plays) for 2 touchdowns.  In their first two drives, the Colts had managed all of 7 yards in 6 plays.

Their first four possessions were all three-and-out’s, totaling 21 yards of offense.  By the time they managed their first first-down (with 1:18 left in the first half), they had already seen Kansas City rack up 18 first downs and 274 yards.  The only reason they were only down 24-7 was because they had blocked Kansas City’s only punt of the first half – recovering it in the end zone.  It was the only blemish on a surprisingly effective KC defensive effort.

The potency of the Chiefs’ offense being what it is, the two scoring drives were not that surprising.  The expectation, though, was that the Colts would be putting up some points of their own.  While the Chiefs have been one of the elite offenses all season, their defense has rarely come to the party.  They, in fact, showed up at the dance with the NFL’s thirty-first ranked defense – number 27 against the run and number 31 against the pass (remember, there are only 32 teams in the league). They had given up 421 points through their 16 games (26.3 per), and were allowing 5.0 yards per attempted run.

Coming off their game in Houston where they ran for 200 yards Indianapolis must have felt they could run on the Chiefs.  And, perhaps, if they could have kept themselves in the game, they eventually might have.

As it was – even though they only rushed 14 times on the day – they were beginning to break through.  Their last 9 rushes of the game netted 66 yards.  But by then, they were out of time and Kansas City was well on its way to a 31-13 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Playing in the Snow

Arrowhead greeted Indianapolis with 30 degree temperatures and a light blowing snow.  One of the NFL’s enduring truisms is that dome teams or warm weather teams always look out of place in bad weather.  Taking nothing away from the Chiefs’ defense – which was dominant for most of the game – Indy never looked comfortable in that environment.  One week after converting 9 of 14 third downs against the Texans, Indy finished Saturday 0-for-9.  Along the way, they went 0-2 in the red zone and committed 10 penalties for 70 yards.

The Chiefs seemed to waver a bit late in the season – losing three of five at one point.  The week off seems to have done them good.  They appeared fresher and more energized than I had seen them recently.

And they will have to be at their readiest for next week.

Patriots Advance

With 15 seconds left in the first half, and already in field goal range, the Patriots decided to run one more quick play to better their field goal opportunity, even though they had expended their time outs. 

They faced a third-and-six on the Charger 36-yard line.  Quarterback Tom Brady flipped a quick pass out to wide receiver Philip Dorsett.  Although the Patriots believed that Dorsett had made it out of bounds at about the first-down marker, the official ruled that Michael Davis had managed to pull him down in bounds.  Caught by surprise, the Patriots were unable to line up and spike the ball before the half ended.  The field goal attempt never happened.

That was the first thing to go right all day for the beleaguered Los Angeles Chargers, who couldn’t wait to see the clock run out on that first half.  Of all the dominating early performances, this one by the Patriots was the most dominant.  They exited to the cheers of the crowd with a 35-7 lead that had featured 24 first downs, 5-6 conversions on third down, and a 5-5 performance in the red zone.  They had 347 yards of total offense, and already had a 100-yard rusher (Sony Michel with 105) and a 100-yard receiver (Julian Edelman with 107).  The Patriots finished the half with more first downs than the Chargers had offensive plays (23) and almost as many touchdowns (5) as the Chargers had first downs (6).

In the second half, the Patriots would take their foot off the gas a bit.  They would run the ball on 16 of their 31 second half plays.  They would score no more touchdowns, but would add two more field goals.  After controlling the clock for 20:11 of the first half, they would run it for 18:09 more in the second.

Charger quarterback Philip Rivers kept throwing the ball, and Los Angeles did a little late, cosmetic scoring, but this game – an eventual 41-28 New England win (gamebook) (summary) was over early.

Rattling Rivers

Even before the first half completely imploded, you could see Rivers seething on the sidelines and on the field.  He seethed at the officials, his own players, and probably his coaches, too – although the cameras didn’t catch that.

Composure has always been an issue for Rivers – even in his advanced years.  As a young player, he seemed to be more concerned about trash talking his opponent than focusing on playing quarterback.  In the past few years, that tendency has lessened, but he still has trouble letting go of things.  Yes, there were some calls that could have been made that weren’t.  Yes his teammates didn’t play very well – in particular his offensive line and running backs were frequently lacking at picking up the Patriot blitzes. But if you want to be that quarterback – the one that finally leads the Chargers to the promised land – then you really have to let go of things.

With the Patriots being so dominant, I don’t truly think there was anything that Rivers – composed or not – could have done to prevent them from advancing.  But his frustrations clearly impacted his focus and performance.  Philip just turned 37 in December.  He still has all the passion and competitiveness that he had when he was 17 – which is good.  Mostly.  With the few opportunities he has left, though, he will have to be mentally and emotionally stronger if he hopes to have his finger measured for that ring.

Meanwhile the Patriots

After last year’s Super Bowl I noted that the Patriots were finding it increasingly difficult to prepare for the start of playoff games.  After a decade plus of general domination, it seemed that playoff games didn’t matter to the organization as much anymore.  This was apparent in the recent playoff deficits this team has had to overcome.

Perhaps with the sting of the last Super Bowl still burning in their minds, this New England team was all business – all urgency – from the start.  They put together touchdown drives on all of their first four possessions, each consuming at least 63 yards.  Almost as if to add insult to injury, the one time in the entire half that New England punted, Desmond King muffed the punt, handing the thing back to New England on the Charger 35.  It took them four plays from there to punch in their fifth touchdown of the half.

A Lesson From the Masters

Analyzing the game on TV, Tony Romo kept making two recurring points, but never tied them together.  Let me do that for him.

Even before the opening kickoff, Romo warned that if the Chargers stayed in their normal zone defenses that Brady and the Patriots would pick them apart.  At various times before the game got completely out of hand, Romo implored them to change things up – especially in regard to pressuring Brady.  But they never really did.

At the same time, Tony marveled at the ability of the Patriots to morph into a completely different team almost at a whim.  In this case, he applauded the defense for their impersonation of the Baltimore Ravens.  This was a point he returned to often – how Bill Belichick and the Patriots can seamlessly adjust to any opponent or game situation.

Somewhere in the conjunction of these two concepts is a lesson for Chargers’ coach Anthony Lynn – and in fact for all coaches in the National Football League.

As much as anything else, Lynn’s Chargers were done in by the fact that they were inflexible.  Especially on defense, they did what they do.  Yes, most offenses cannot patiently and flawlessly work their way down the field against a disciplined zone defense.  At some point most offenses will make the drive-ending mistake.  Last Sunday, coach Lynn learned the hard way that the Patriots are not most offenses.

Meanwhile, those of us who have watched them for lo these many years understand that their adaptability is the main thing that has kept New England at the top.  The Patriots are not married to any particular offensive philosophy.  Nor are the constrained by any particular defensive approach.  Except for Tom Brady at quarterback, they are not committed to any set lineup.  And, except for a pronounced vulnerability when Brady gets pressure up the middle, there is no sure formula for beating the Patriots.

This is an extremely difficult pinnacle to reach.  There is a reason why New England’s success is unmatched.  But it might be the most important realization for any franchise that hopes to see itself someday appearing in their eighth straight Championship Game.

Tears for the Chargers?

In some of my discussions in 2016, I sounded a sympathetic note for the Chargers and their long-suffering fans.  In recent years, they have found all sorts of ways to let potential opportunities slip through their fingertips.

While I still feel some sympathy for some of the long-time players, I am finding it difficult these days to feel any heartbreak for the franchise.  As with a great many football fans, the thought of the Chargers selling out San Diego for the lucre of Los Angeles as left something of a bitter taste in my mouth.  This isn’t a harshness that I feel for the Rams – who originally moved from LA to St Louis.  (The Rams were actually in Cleveland until 1946.)  But the Chargers belong to San Diego.  Playing now before a mostly apathetic home crowd, it may well be many years before this franchise works its way through its bad karma.

The Championship Round

So, the NFL now has its final four.  It will be number one against number two in both conferences.  In a sense, though, it will be more than that.  Both conferences have something of a past-vs-future meme going on.

In New England and New Orleans we have two legendary coach-quarterback combinations.  Kansas City and Los Angeles (the Rams) bring a glimpse of tomorrow in rising stars Patrick Mahomes and Jared Goff.  In the case of the Rams, the youth meme even extends to coach Sean McVay.

It is premature to suppose that either Brady or Breese is ready to pass the torch just yet, but it will be interesting to see how these two games will be remembered ten years from now.

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