Ground game as big as aerial fireworks show in NFL
Denver Broncos 335-pound defensive tackle Terrance Knighton sat at his locker and chuckled at the thought of his first trip to the playoffs, his belly shaking like a shopping mall Santa Claus.
It's almost time for some throwback football, he said, for the jelly-belly linemen and the tailbacks so often overlooked in today's pass-heavy NFL to dust off the cobwebs and take center stage again.
''I think during the regular season, it's about who puts up 40 points,'' Knighton said. ''But in the playoffs, you've got to take care of the ball, eat up the clock and play good defense.''
The teams that reached the Super Bowl last season weren't the ones with the best records but the two that led all playoff teams in carries per game in the postseason.
That's one reason the Broncos followed their free agent acquisition of slot receiver Wes Welker by drafting 220-pound running back Montee Ball, the bruising Badger who could move the sticks in the fourth quarter. That's something they were unable to do with lightweight Ronnie Hillman during their playoff pratfall against the Ravens last January.
Not that Peyton Manning, the first quarterback in the NFL's 93-year history to throw for 50-plus touchdowns and 5,000-plus yards in a season, will suddenly just hand off next month. But he knows a good ground game is the foundation for a solid aerial show.
''When you're just throwing it over and over again, teams start to bring more and more pressure and just tee off on you,'' Bengals offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth said. ''We're creating that scenario where it's hard to know which one you want to do. Even though people say throwing is the new generation, running the football will always be the hammer in the sense that it can eliminate many defensive game plans.
''That's why it's so pivotal to be able to stop it for every team in the league,'' Whitworth added. ''If you can stop the run you're going to be a good defense, and if you can't, you never will be a good defense.''
Denver couldn't stop the run earlier this month against San Diego, which leads the league in time of possession (33:21). The Chargers upset Denver 27-20 when Manning spent most of his night on the sideline.
''The longer you keep the ball and the less he has it, the better off you're going to be,'' Chargers coach Mike McCoy said after providing a blueprint on how to thwart what might go down as the first 600-point team in league history.
''If a team can run the ball, they're going to control the clock,'' Knighton said. ''That's what San Diego did. We were on the field way too long. And the type of offense we have, our guys need a rhythm. So, that's going to come down to us to get the ball back for Peyton.''
The metric that best shows effectiveness running the football or stopping the run is first-down percentage. It's akin to on-base percentage in baseball.
Of the teams who have clinched a playoff berth or are in the running heading into the final weekend, Kansas City, behind the AFC's leading rusher, Jamaal Charles, has the best first-down percentage at 24.9, followed by New England at 23.0 and Denver at 22.7.
In the NFC, it's Philadelphia, led by the league's top rusher, LeSean McCoy, at 26.6, followed by Green Bay at 25.9 and Carolina at 24.9. Of those three teams, only the Panthers have clinched a playoff spot.
Now, the other side.
Baltimore is the best in the AFC at getting off the field and getting the ball back for its offense, allowing a first down on just 17.6 percent of all running plays, followed by Cincinnati (18.9) and Kansas City (20.2).
In the NFC, the top teams are Arizona (18.7), which could go 11-5 and miss out on the postseason party, Carolina (19.6) and San Francisco (19.7).
Even though it's almost New Year's, chances are still pretty good the ball will go through the air once it gets in the quarterback's hands. Last week, 54 percent of all plays were passes, but of the 16 teams that won, they averaged 33 runs and 30 passes.
Compare that to the opening weekend of the season, when 59 percent of all plays were passes and the teams that came out on top threw an average of 37 times and ran 30 times.
Teams got a taste of what January - and the Super Bowl in East Rutherford, N.J. on Feb. 2 - might be like earlier this month. An Arctic blast dumped snow on most of the country and games were played in icy or even blizzard conditions.
In the playoffs, the mercury usually falls some more and the pressure only rises.
And if there is a sunny day in there somewhere, you can bet the ground game will still be a priority.
''When you run the football, they've got to respect that part of the game that much more,'' Broncos receiver Eric Decker said. ''The safeties come down a little harder. Linebackers may bite on play-action more. It just opens the middle of the field, gives you more 1-on-1 opportunities. And that is how this game is played. It's complementary. You've got to be able to run the football to pass. You've got to be able to pass the ball to run.
''Especially this time of year, you see teams that make it to the championship, they're running the football.''
AP Pro Football Writer Rob Maaddi and AP Sports Writers Steven Wine, Joe Kay, Tim Booth and Dave Skretta contributed.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org
Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton