Divisional round takeaways: Run games stand out

While everyone wants to anoint the NFL as a passing league, this weekend was another reminder of the importance of the running game and it was the theme for all four winners in the Divisional Round.
January 13, 2014, 1:53 PM

Who said the NFL was a passing league?

In a season where all kinds of passing records were broken, running the football was the key to all four victories in the Divisional Round.

Of the four teams that won this weekend, only one of the winning quarterbacks (Peyton Manning) threw for over 200 passing yards. Two of those quarterbacks (Russell Wilson and Tom Brady) didn’t register a touchdown pass.

Seattle and San Francisco couldn’t have been surprised by this trend. They built their offences to play in this fashion. In fact, no team had fewer passing attempts during the regular season than Seattle and San Francisco.

Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll wanted their offences to be built around physical running attacks because that’s what historically wins in the elements in January. That was evident in New England and Denver over the weekend.

With that in mind, here are our takeaways from this weekend’s games:

Rough game for Sean Payton: As good as Sean Payton has been this season with New Orleans, he was not at his best in the Saints’ loss to Seattle. Hindsight is 20/20 but there were a number of head-scratching decisions that hurt his team late in the game. The most notable was his choice to attempt a field goal on fourth-and-15 with his team down by eight points in the fourth quarter. Why not put the game in Drew Brees’ hands? Big mistake. Payton’s clock management was a recurring problem on Saturday, as he also wasted his final timeout on a hopeless challenge. It was an out of character game for one of the gutsiest head coaches in the league. We’ll excuse him for the Marques Colston fiasco, though.

Seahawks need more from their passing game: As effective as Marshawn Lynch was running the football, the Seahawks will need a better effort from their passing game if they want to win the Super Bowl. The Seahawks offence has struggled as a whole over the final month of the season, scoring just 100 points in their past five games. After Percy Harvin left the game, the passing game sputtered until the final attempt of the game to Doug Baldwin. The wind clearly hurt both passing attacks, but Seattle’s offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell didn’t call enough high-percentage passes for Russell Wilson. He finished with only nine completed passes and that won’t be enough to get past San Francisco.

Former Bucs make huge contribution: It must have been a strange feeling for Greg Schiano and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers watching the divisional games on Saturday. Two of the biggest contributors, New England running back LeGarrette Blount and Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett, were former Buccanneers that were basically forced out of town by Schiano. The Pats’ top cornerback, Aqib Talib, was given away by Tampa Bay two years ago because of off-the-field struggles. Blount was traded to New England last spring for a seventh-round pick and Bennett signed a one-year deal with Seattle because he didn’t want to stay with the Bucs’ former disciplinarian head coach. Tampa Bay may not have been a playoff team over the past few years but at least they’re developing key players for other teams.

Colts exposed in New England: Andrew Luck couldn’t do enough this time to make up for a deeply flawed Colts roster. The Colts simply have too many holes to be a contender. That’s why they allowed 40-plus points in back-to-back playoff games. The run defence isn’t good enough—they gave up six rushing touchdowns against New England—they can’t protect the passer with any consistency and they invested too much in big-name players (Trent Richardson, LaRon Landry) that didn’t play up to their reputation. Colts general manager Ryan Grigson has work to do to surround Luck with better talent. And he’ll have to do it without his first-round pick.

Carolina needs to invest in a receiver: It was an impressive season by the Panthers and first-year general manager David Gettleman, but they didn’t have enough experience and talent to keep up with the 49ers. Carolina is for real, though. They have solid building blocks in place and now Gettleman has to find a way to get better receivers around Cam Newton. Steve Smith, the team’s top wideout, is getting older and there isn’t enough talent behind him. Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn, Jr. have shown flashes of brilliance but they’re not consistent enough receivers for Newton to bank on. Don’t be surprised if Eric Decker and Hakeem Nicks are legitimate targets for Carolina as free agents.

Harbaugh’s magic: Jim Harbaugh’s childish sideline antics may be tough to watch at times but it’s impossible to doubt his impact with the 49ers. The guy can flat out coach. With San Francisco’s win Sunday, Harbaugh became the first coach since the merger in 1970 to make three straight championship game appearances in his first three seasons. An impressive feat considering how screwed up San Francisco was under previous coach Mike Singletary. The media or opposing players will never be fond of Harbaugh’s tactics but it’s clear the players are responding to his message.

Good for John Fox: The Denver Broncos coach is conservative by nature; some would say too conservative. It hurt his team last year when Denver tried to run out the clock and couldn’t put the Baltimore Ravens away. This year, Fox still ran the ball sufficiently down the stretch but when the game was on the line he put the ball in the hands of Manning, who made multiple clutch throws on third down to seal a tough game over San Diego. NFL coaches tend to be stubborn in their beliefs but it was refreshing to see Fox adjust to his players. That’s why they’re still alive in the tournament.

Ideal Championship Sunday: In one-and-done situations, it’s been rare over the past decade for the four best teams to play on Championship Sunday. There have been too many upsets and No. 1 seeds coming in ill-prepared after the bye week. But it doesn’t get much better than next week’s matchup with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning facing off for the 15th time and the league’s best and meanest rivalry, Seattle and San Francisco, going head-to-head in the NFC final. As much as the NFL loves to talk about parity, having these quality matchups is when the league is at its best. It’s impossible not to be excited for next week’s slate.

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