|NFL.com / Associated Press|
|Shonn Greene, Ray Rice and Felix Jones have the Jets, Ravens and Cowboys winning with old-school football.|
Of the 10 4,000-yard passers in the regular season, seven guided their teams into the playoffs, a fact that had many observers ready to tout the NFL as a pass-driven league.
However, the stunning results of Wild-Card Weekend show that old-school football still tends to win in the postseason.
While Arizona used a heavy dose of passing plays to beat Green Bay, the New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens, and Dallas Cowboys relied on the proven championship formula of a strong running game complemented by stout defense to win their playoff openers, a recipe that has keyed each of their strong regular-season finishes.
Here's a closer look at those three teams and how they have used old-school tactics to make their runs:
New York Jets
The Jets, who won five of their final six regular-season games to secure a wild-card berth, led the league in rushing with a whopping 172.2-yard per-game average. While Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene have been credited for spearheading the Jets' dynamic rush attack, it has been the exceptional play of their offensive line that has led to the team's recent dominance. The trio of tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson, guard Alan Faneca and center Nick Mangold has given the Jets an impenetrable wall on the left side of the line, and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has repeatedly directed the team's running game in their direction.
Utilizing a mixture of outside zone runs with occasional counters, the Jets have bludgeoned opponents at the point of attack and have racked up over 200 yards on the ground in each of their last three games. More impressively, the team has done it with a one-dimensional game plan that has limited Mark Sanchez to fewer than 20 throws in each of those games.
Of course, the presence of the league's top defense has helped, as the Jets have held their last seven opponents under 16 points and forced seven turnovers in the last three games. Cornerback Darrelle Revis has keyed the surge by eliminating the opponent's top receiver, which has allowed Rex Ryan to attack quarterbacks with a host of exotic blitzes that disrupt their timing in the pocket.
Against the Chargers on Sunday in the vivisional round, the Jets' hardnosed style could prove to be problematic. For as hot as San Diego has been during their 11-game winning streak, their vulnerabilities perfectly suit the Jets' strengths. Without Pro Bowl DT Jamal Williams controlling the middle, the Chargers have struggled stopping teams committed to running the ball between the tackles.
Although San Diego's big-play offense has masked the deficiency by routinely forcing opponents to abandon their ground-based game plans by creating shootouts, the Jets' stubborn refusal to put the ball in the air will unquestionably test the Chargers' mettle.
The Ravens have also turned to smash-mouth football to enhance their chances in the postseason. The team has ridden the combination of Ray Rice and Willis McGahee down the stretch to win three of their final four games. This comes after spending the early part of the season featuring Joe Flacco as the driver of the offense. The second-year quarterback recorded 30 or more pass attempts in nine of the team's first 12 games, but a mediocre 6-6 record prompted the team to return to its run-heavy roots. Since recommitting to the running game, the Ravens have reeled off four wins in their last five games and have featured a 100-yard rusher in four of those games.
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has engineered the charge by featuring a myriad of unbalanced line formations to create a numerical advantage at the point of attack. Cameron further complicates matters by using a variety of shifts and motions to keep defenders guessing about the direction of the running game. With a combination of guile and brute strength, the Ravens have undoubtedly crafted a running game that is one of the game's most difficult to stop.
Baltimore faces Indianapolis on Saturday for the right to go to the AFC Championship Game. Given the Colts' suspect run defense (ranked 24th in regular season giving up 126.5 yards per game), the Ravens have the ingredient to engineer another dramatic playoff upset. Six rushers have topped the 100-yard mark against the Colts, so Rice and McGahee could be in line for big days.
The inclusion of the Cowboys on a list of old-school proponents would be a surprise as recent as a year ago, but the team has undergone a drastic transformation this season. Wade Phillips has turned a team that emphasized style into a blue-collar unit built upon a solid running game and a menacing defense.
Although Tony Romo still acts as the primary playmaker on offense, coordinator Jason Garrett has increasingly used the running game to alleviate the pressure on his star quarterback. Unlike the Jets and Ravens, who pound the ball between the tackles from the outset, the Cowboys throw early to grab the lead, then salt away the game by repeatedly handing the ball to Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice on an assortment of power runs.
The team's tactics don't necessarily evoke images of 3 yards and a cloud of dust, but it is reminiscent of the formula that the team used in their heyday with Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin.
Furthermore, the combination of quick strikes and power runs has been the perfect complement to their emerging defense. Led by outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, the defense has been sensational during the team's hot streak, feasting on recent opponents while playing with a lead. Given the freedom to hunt quarterbacks extensively, the Cowboys' fierce pass rush has tallied at least four sacks in four straight games, while only surrendering 31 points.
Additionally, the Cowboys' secondary has blanketed opposing receivers and made it difficult for opponents to generate big plays in the passing game. With both sides of the ball playing well, the Cowboys have emerged as a legitimate title contender.
Minnesota, which hosts Dallas on Sunday, continually fields one of the leagueâs toughest run defenses, but their secondary struggled against the pass down the stretch. Given the susceptibility of the Vikings to the deep ball, expect Garrett to use the threat of the run to create big-play opportunities for Romo.