You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to pick a winner in the AFC Championship Game, but it wouldn’t hurt.
Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have met 14 times over the years and have lit up scoreboards. Both these quarterbacks are prototypical, quintessential paragons of the position. Every franchise has scoured the country, signed draft picks and hoped their guy would be the next Manning or Brady. Yet the great irony of the AFC Championship Game on Sunday may have nothing to do with which quarterback plays better and everything to do with which team runs the ball better.
Both these quarterbacks are classic pocket passers, adept at play-action, and therein lies the rub. These two men could, can, and have held up in a pass-first offense for more than a decade but both will tell you how important the running game is to their effectiveness.
Stats are deceiving, but when the sample size is large enough and what you see on film is backed up with numbers they become impossible to ignore.
Both teams, Denver and New England, finished in the top half of the league in rushing. Both teams average almost 30 rushing attempts per game. And Brady’s brawlers are a top-10 rushing team in yards per carry.
Run down situations — 1st & 10, 2nd & 1-6 — define a football team. What you do in those downs and distances, run or pass, determines the type of offense you run. Run the ball near 60 percent of the time in those situations and you’re a run-first team. Throw the ball 60 percent of the time and you’re a pass-first team. Do it 50 percent of the time on first down and you’re a balanced team.
The Broncos run the ball 49.9 percent of the time on 1st & 10. They run it 55 percent of the time on 2nd & 1-6. They are a balanced offense and their play distribution backs it up. Although they are more of a one-back, shotgun, zone blocking scheme, their running game is integral to what they do, helping Manning and company become the No. 1 passing team in the league — despite their balance!
The Patriots run the ball 48.07 percent of the time on 1st & 10. They run it 57 percent of the time on 2nd & 1-6. They are also a balanced rush offense, creeping towards a run-first offense on second down, but they do it differently. The Patriots, lately, are running a lot of two-back sets, including “Pair Personnel” (two backs and two tight ends). They are more of a power blocking scheme, especially when LeGarrette Blount is in the game.
Manning may be the most prolific passer the league has ever known, calls his own plays, and yet the Broncos finished just out of the top-10 in rushing attempts per game in 2014. Yes, the Broncos had big leads on many teams and they ran the ball more in the fourth quarter. Yet, when you examine the first three-quarters on a play-by-play basis, the Broncos are a balanced offense, mixing the run, pass and play-action.
Tom Brady has the best play-action mechanics in the game. Nobody does it better than Brady. Yet what has made the Patriots a viable Super Bowl contender, despite the fact they have Brady throwing the football, is their power running game. Brady cites this component of offensive football as the reason why they have played so well and are in the position they are.
Knowing this, although a gross simplification, I don’t believe it’s an exaggeration to say that the team that runs the ball better will be the team that has the most effective play-action; and the team that has the most effective play-action, with two of the best play-action quarterbacks the league has ever known throwing the ball, will most likely be the team that wins this game.
It’s elementary, isn’t it?