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The NFL playoffs are still defined by the passing game more than the running game

Workhorse backs are making a comeback, but the path to Super Bowl 54 will come down to QB play.

Wild Card Round - Tennessee Titans v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The NFL’s top runners earned some big wins to kick off this year’s playoffs.

Derrick Henry ran for 182 yards as his Titans left New England with an upset victory. Dalvin Cook gashed the Saints early and then again in overtime to give Minnesota its first postseason road win in 15 years. Even though they didn’t win, Devin Singletary and Josh Allen combined to roast the Texans for 150 yards on 22 carries in the Bills’ overtime loss.

Tennessee may have beaten Tom Brady with only 71 net passing yards, but that doesn’t mean the league is suddenly shifting back toward the run-first offenses of the past. Running backs — especially workhorse ones — were important to the first weekend of the 2020 playoffs but, barring a major reversal in recent trends, there’s too much passing talent left in the postseason for 2020 to be a throwback to the 1980s.

Passing efficiency will be a bigger factor than rushing yardage on the road to the Super Bowl

One narrative that cropped up intermittently this past week is that there’s a changing of the guard for the league’s most prolific passers, who were chopped down in favor of burly, 20+ carry tailbacks. Even Giants’ general manager Dave Gettleman, someone who spent the sixth pick of 2019 on a quarterback, thinks running the ball is paramount to NFL success.

A grind-it-out weekend of games saw teams score an average of just 18.1 points over four games — even though two of those went to overtime. That was down from 22.8 points per game in the regular season.

A lack of passing helped contribute to that number, as only the Seahawks threw for at least 300 yards. Though this did put the onus on running games across the opening week of the postseason, there’s a connection between efficient passing and Wild Card Round victories.

These are the quarterbacks who were eliminated last weekend:

There are some big names in the group, but those quarterbacks, with the exception of Brees, weren’t exactly lighting the league on fire this season. In the grand scheme of things, the QBs eliminated in the Wild Card Round ranked second (Brees), 13th (Wentz), 18th (Brady), and 24th (Allen) in passer rating in 2019.

The winning quarterbacks in those games finished 2019 ranked first (Ryan Tannehill), fourth (Kirk Cousins), fifth (Russell Wilson), and 11th (Deshaun Watson).

Taking a closer look at the winners:

In short, the group of more efficient passers won — a trend that’s become a pretty solid predictor for NFL wins and losses throughout the year.

The Divisional Round should be a heady balance of run and pass — but the air attack will still rule

Those four QBs from last weekend are getting thrown into a mix of teams led by:

  • two former MVPs coming off seasons marred by either injury (Patrick Mahomes) or a relative slump (Aaron Rodgers)
  • 2019’s yet-to-be-crowned MVP (Lamar Jackson)
  • and a rising young player who went 13-3 in his first full season as a starter (Jimmy Garoppolo).

These eight remaining quarterbacks rank among the NFL’s top 12 players in terms of passer rating, adjusted yards per attempt, and adjusted net yards per attempt. Everyone but Aaron Rodgers ranks among the top 11 in completion and touchdown rate.

They’re also flanked by solid running games capable of putting up big numbers in terms of pure yardage. Henry and Cook are really the only true bellwether, high-mileage runners left standing, though. They are the only two players among the league’s top 11 most-used ballcarriers still in the postseason. Seven of the tailbacks that flank Henry and Cook on that list — guys like Joe Mixon, Nick Chubb, and Christian McCaffrey — soaked up carries for teams with inefficient passing games that failed to make the playoffs.

That doesn’t mean running the ball won’t be important — especially for Baltimore, which finished the season with more rush yards (3,296) than passing yards (3,225). In fact, five of the league’s top six rushing teams, by yardage, are still alive in an eight-team race to the Super Bowl. When it comes to rushing efficiency, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA, that number drops to five of the top 11 running games in the NFL.

But seven of the league’s eight remaining franchises (not you, Texans) ranked among the NFL’s top 11 teams in passing efficiency, suggesting that’s been the more important indicator of team success.

Back to the run-first Ravens. Jackson, who only attempted 26.7 passes per game this season, was still incredibly efficient when he did throw. The soon-to-be MVP ranked first in QBR (81.1), third in passer rating (113.3), fourth in adjusted net yards per attempt (8.19), and fifth in defense-adjusted yards above replacement, or DYAR (1,272).

Even in a year when the league’s traditional counting stats didn’t mean much — Jameis Winston was 2019’s most prolific passer and he threw 30 interceptions — true contenders are still defined by their ability to pass the ball more than their run games.

Fortunately for the teams remaining in the hunt for the Super Bowl title, this year’s playoff bracket is loaded with quarterbacks who can deliver.