There is an old cliche in the NFL that says the recipe to win in the playoffs is to play good defense and run the football. San Francisco and Baltimore each have talented defenses, but the game will also matchup two of the best running backs in the NFL. The matchup on the ground, however, goes beyond just Ray Rice and Frank Gore.
The 49ers had one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL during the regular season, but San Francisco has taken it to another level in the postseason. The 49ers averaged 155.7 rushing yards per game during the regular season. That was good enough for fourth in the NFL, but San Francisco has dominated on the ground in the postseason and is averaging 236.0 rushing yards per game. The Niners' yards per carry have jumped from a very good 5.1 to a ridiculous 6.6 during the postseason.
A big reason for the increase in rushing yards is the running ability of quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick rushed for 202 yards in San Francisco's two playoff games, pairing with Frank Gore to give the 49ers a lethal one-two combination.
Even though Kaepernick has given a boost to the 49ers' rushing attack during the postseason, the opposite happened during the regular season. With Alex Smith starting the first nine games of the season, the 49ers averaged 170.2 rushing yards per contest. That average dropped to 137.0 in the final seven games of the regular season after Kaepernick replaced Smith as the starter.
The 49ers didn't attempt to run any less, they averaged 30.3 rushing attempts per game with Smith then went up to 31.3 attempts per game with Kaepernick. Instead, they just had less success with their yards per carry dropping from 5.6 to 4.4.
So what changed in the playoffs? Kaepernick's 181-yard performance against Green Bay helps the average, but San Francisco has had a lot more success running wide during the postseason. During the regular season, the 49ers averaged 6.42 yards per rush to the left end. That average is up to 10.64 in the playoffs. On the other side, they wen't from a 7.65 average on runs to the right end up to 8.46.
Kaepernick's read-option outside runs are a big part of that, but so is the bigger role of the speedy LaMichael James. After not playing in the first 13 weeks of the season James made his NFL debut in Week 14. He had limited success in his first few games but has found room to run in the postseason. Five of James' eight carries in the postseason have gone off the end. He's averaging 6.8 yards per carry on those runs.
This is all without mentioning Gore. He finished the regular season with 1,214 yards, but saw his yards per carry drop from 5.4 with Smith at quarterback to 3.9 with Kaepernick. He's bounced back some in the postseason and is averaging 4.8 yards per carry in the playoffs.
The Ravens may not have a running threat at quarterback like San Francisco, but led by Ray Rice, the Baltimore rushing attack has also improved during the postseason. Baltimore is averaging 148.7 rushing yards per game in the postseason, up from 118.8 during the regular season.
Rice is a big part of that, but the emergence of rookie Bernard Pierce has been a huge factor. Pierce averaged 33.3 rushing yards per game during the regular season, but he's increased that to 56.3 yards per game during the playoffs. He's getting a slightly bigger workload, but he's also done more with it upping his yards per carry from 4.9 to 6.3.
One of the biggest areas the Baltimore running game has improved in the playoffs is on third down. During the regular season, Baltimore averaged 2.9 yards per attempt on third down rushes. The Ravens are averaging 8.7 yards per attempt on 11 third down rushes in the postseason and that includes one quarterback kneel. Pierce has been a big part of that success as he's gained 67 yards on three third down rushed. Rice, on the other hand, has gained 25 yards on six similar carries.
Rice has been considered one of the best running backs in football, in recent years, but oddly enough the 49ers may have to be more concerned with the big play ability of Pierce.
The 49ers had the fourth best rush defense during the regular season and while they are allowing just 92.5 rushing yards per game in the postseason, they appear to be more vulnerable than they were during the regular season. San Francisco is allowing 4.7 yards per rush in the postseason a full yard more than they allowed during the regular season.
That number is even worse when you remember the two teams they've faced -- Green Bay and Atlanta -- combined to average 3.8 yards per attempt during the regular season. The 49ers have struggled some in 1st-and-10 situations. After allowing 3.47 yards per carry on 1st-and-10 in the regular season, teams have gained 5.35 yards per carry in the same situation in the postseason.
Baltimore has had similar success in the postseason as they had during the regular season. The Ravens are allowing 128.3 rushing yards per game and 3.9 yards per carry in the postseason. They allowed 122.8 yards per game and 4.0 yards per carry during the regular season.
The Ravens do, however, still have their issues. In six 3rd-and-1 situations in the playoffs, Baltimore has allowed five rushing first downs.