By Jason Keidel
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The pyrotechnic passing offenses in this Super Bowl perfectly represent the era that spawned them. The Atlanta Falcons easily scored the most points in the NFL this season. And it’s no coincidence that they and their opponent, the New England Patriots, led the league in scoring margin.
But for all the aerial splendor, something sets it up. Another dynamic makes the passing game possible. And, despite the sport bending the rules so heavily in favor of throwing the football, running with the rock still works.
If you need proof that even the Patriots, with Tom Brady’s ageless arm, need a rushing attack, consider this mind-bending stat: The Patriots are 16-0 over the last two years when utility back Dion Lewis plays.
And you need not be an Atlantan to know the value of rushing. Devonta Freeman set the sport on fire last season, bringing Falcons fans and fantasy owners to their respective feet. And while Freeman wasn’t a secret this season, he still rushed for over 1,000 yards and a rather robust 11 touchdowns.
Good news for Falcons fans is 12 of Freeman’s 14 total scores came at home, in the Georgia Dome. And NRG Stadium, the site of Sunday’s game, is essentially a dome, on the fast track that favors the running back.
Sure, the Falcons (357.5 yards per game) and Patriots (326.5 YPG) led their respective conferences in playoff passing yards. But they didn’t start their seasons in January. Indeed, the Falcons were fifth in the NFL, with 120.5 rushing yards per game, while the Patriots were right behind them, with 117 yards on the ground per game, seventh in the league.
It may shock you to know that New England was third in the NFL with 30.2 rushing attempts per game. The Falcons were tied for third in rushing touchdowns, with 20, while the Pats, again, were a nose behind, with 19. The Pats and Falcons were sixth and seventh, respectively, in rushing first downs. And the Falcons were fourth in yards per carry, at 4.6
Since we so glorify passing and, by extension, quarterback play — and you won’t find two more prolific passers than Tom Brady and Matt Ryan — we naturally ignore, or at least overlook, the men lined up a few yards behind them.
But the glamour boys will be the first to credit the bruisers in the backfield. Atlanta would not be in the Super Bowl without the terrific tandem of Freeman and Tevin Coleman. And the Pats have made their running back by committee, featuring Lewis, James White and LeGarrette Blount, a model of smash-mouth football, with a twist of nouveau passing.
Lewis made an indelible stamp on these playoffs by scoring three touchdowns three different ways in the divisional round against the Texans, all but salting the game away by himself, sans the hands of Brady. Lewis, the Swiss Army knife of running backs, became the first player in NFL history to score a TD by rushing, receiving and kick return all in the same playoff game.
So perhaps this game will pivot on playing the run. If so, the Patriots have the edge. During the regular season, the Pats were perhaps the stingiest defense against the rush, allowing just 88.6 yards per game, third in the league. Meanwhile, they surrendered just six touchdowns on the ground, easily the best in the NFL. By contrast, the Falcons yielded 104.5 rushing yards (17th) and 15 scores (tied for 18th).
Also, the Patriots were fifth in rushing first downs allowed, while Atlanta was 19th. And in terms of game-breaking runs, consider that the Patriots allowed just three runs of at least 20 yards, which led the league, while the Falcons gave up 12.
And there’s the kaleidoscopic lineups the Pats present every game. If you watched the documentary “Do Your Job” on the NFL Network, a recap of the Patriots’ 2014 season, you saw how they confuse even the most seasoned coaches with a musical-chairs approach to formations. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will send running backs into the slot, declaring them ineligible, while a guard is free to lumber into the secondary to catch a soft pass from Brady.
So running the football is clearly more than cosmetic with these teams. Which is one reason why the winner of this game will be the world champion. As usual, the stats back the Pats. But the Falcons have spent the last six months proving, to paraphrase Don Shula, that only one stat will matter: the scoreboard.
How they get there could depend on two legs as much as Matt Ryan’s right arm.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel